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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

Investigating the loss or looting of cultural heritage properties and returning them to their countries of origin are an important part of ICE's diverse mission. ICE, as a legacy of the U.S. Customs Service, has authorities that target a wide range of criminal activities, many of them involving smuggling and trafficking, both of goods and people. The agency often investigates leads to art and artifacts that are important evidence of another nation's history and cultural heritage. ICE takes pride in bringing to justice those who would trade in such items for personal profit and in returning to other nations these priceless items.

The theft and trafficking of cultural items is a practice that is older than history. What is new about it is how easy it is for cultural pirates to acquire valuable antiquities, artworks and artifacts, fossils, coins or textiles and move them around the globe, swiftly, easily and inexpensively without regard to laws, borders, nationalities or their value to a nation’s heritage.

Fortunately, ICE agents are better prepared than ever to combat these crimes. Our specially trained investigators and attachés in more than 40 countries not only partner with governments, agencies and experts who share our mission to protect these items, but they train the investigators of other nations and agencies on how to find, authenticate and enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Customs laws allow ICE to seize national treasures, especially if they have been reported lost or stolen. ICE works with experts to authenticate the items, determine their true ownership and return them to their countries of origin.

ICE Cultural Heritage Repatriations

Paintings missing since WWII returned to Germany

ICE returned 11 oil paintings to the Pirmasen Municipal Museum in Germany. The paintings were taken from the museum during World War II. The grand-niece of a U.S. serviceman who had served in Pirmasens in 1945 turned a number of the paintings over to ICE. An ICE agent tracked the remaining few to friends of the family. These 11 paintings were among 40 missing works from the Pirmasen Municipal Museum's collection. Eighteen of them were done by Heinrich Buerkel, a native of the area. The paintings were formally welcomed home in September 2010 after being displayed at the Goethe Institute in Manhattan.

Leopold Museum to pay $19 million for "Portrait of Wally" painting

ICE and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that the U.S. has entered into a settlement agreement with the Leopold Museum in Austria and the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray on the civil forfeiture action involving the "Portrait of Wally" painting. "Wally" was painted by Egon Schiele, one of the most prominent Austrian artists of the 20th century, in 1912. The painting was taken from Ms. Bondi Jaray during the Holocaust.

After the war, the painting was seized by U.S. military forces and turned over to the government-owned Austrian National Gallery in Belvedere Palace. In 1994, "Wally" became part of the newly-formed Leopold Museum. In 1997, the Leopold Museum loaned "Wally" to The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Since this painting was owned by the Jaray family -- not the Leopold Museum -- the U.S. Customs Service intervened. It is illegal to import stolen property into the U.S. In July 2010, the Leopold Museum agreed to compensate the family estate for the artwork.

Manuscript taken during World War II returned to Italian town

ICE returned an 18th century, leather-bound, hand-written manuscript, missing since 1943, to Venafro, Italy. The manuscript, "Domain and Baronage in the City of Venafro," written by Giovanni Antonio Monachetti dates back to 1710. It depicts the town's history. After conducting research about the manuscript, the curator of the Des Moines Art Center realized that it was the same one missing from the town of Venafro. She contacted the Italian Consulate in the U.S. about returning the manuscript to its rightful owners.

ICE returned paintings linked to bank fraud

ICE returned two paintings, "Modern Painting with Yellow Interweave"; by Roy Lichtenstein and "Figures Dans Une Structure"; by Joaquin Torres-Garcia, to the government of Brazil. The paintings, which belonged to Brazilian banker Edemarcid Ferreira, were smuggled into the U.S. from the Netherlands in December 2006. The paintings may have been linked to financial crimes committed by Ferreira. He was convicted in Brazil of crimes against the national financial system and money laundering and is now serving 21 years in prison. Together, the paintings were valued at $50 million.

Peruvian pre-Columbian artifacts

ICE in Miami returned five pre-Columbian artifacts to the government of Peru on June 2, 2010. The items include two Peruvian terracotta vessels from the period A.D. 800-1500, a Chimu spouted globular vessel circa A.D. 700-1200, a Nazca region polychrome decorated terracotta beaker circa A.D. 400-900 and a Mochica-type fine line stirrup vessel circa A.D. 600-1200. ICE investigated the artifacts after they were advertised on eBay in 2008. ICE determined that the items were legitimate pre-Columbian Peruvian artifacts and were not permitted to leave Peru.

Stolen bookmark that had belonged to Hitler

An 18-carat gold bookmark, a gift from Eva Braun to Adolf Hitler and the property of a Spanish museum, was returned by ICE officials to Spanish authorities in June 2010. The bookmark had been stolen during a break-in at an art auction house in Madrid, Spain. In 2008, ICE agents in Seattle initiated an undercover investigation after receiving information that an individual was attempting to sell the bookmark. The bookmark dates to February 1943, when Braun reportedly gave it to Hitler after Germany's defeat in the battle of Stalingrad.

525 million-year-old Chinese fossils

ICE returned approximately 100 ancient fossils to the People's Republic of China at their Washington embassy on May 26, 2010. The fossils were determined to be 525 million-year-old paleovertebrate fossils by experts at the Field Museum of Chicago. A CBP officer discovered the fossils during a routine inspection at a Chicago airport mail facility. ICE handled the investigation and ultimately seized the Paleozoic-era fossils. Authenticators said the fossils came from the oldest deposit of soft tissues of animals anywhere in the world. Chinese law prohibits their exportation without special permits.

Salvadoran Mayan artifacts

On May 12, 2010, ICE returned dozens of pre-Columbian and Mayan artifacts to the Embassy of El Salvador. ICE and the National Civilian Police of El Salvador confiscated the artifacts while working together in their first joint investigation, which started after the items were discovered listed for sale on an Internet auction site. A CBP officer in Miami intercepted the items in 2007, when what appeared to be pre-Columbian artifacts were being shipped to Alabama. After an extensive joint investigation, ICE returned the items seized in the United States, and El Salvador was able to prosecute a man and wife who were illegally trying to sell the items, both in El Salvador and on the Internet to buyers in several countries.

Peruvian skulls

ICE returned 12 human skulls that date back to A.D. 640-890 to Peru on April 7, 2010. In 2003 they had been part of a shipment of what appeared to be ceramics that traveled by plane from Peru for a customer in Miami. The shipment, labeled "gifts," went unclaimed and was auctioned off as pottery. A discount retail store bought the crated goods and shipped them by train to a warehouse in Cleveland, where they were discovered to contain human skulls when two warehouse workers accidentally dropped a crate and broke a mold containing a skull. The employees notified ICE and an investigation ensued.

Klee painting

On March 24, 2010, ICE returned a 20th century oil painting that was stolen in 1989 from the Marlborough Art Gallery in Manhattan to the Art Loss Register. "Bildnis in der Laube" (Portrait in the Garden, 1930) was created by Paul Klee, an internationally acclaimed Swiss painter of German origin who painted more than 500 works of art. ICE New York agents recovered the Klee from Landau Fine Art Inc., a gallery in Montreal, Canada. The gallery owner ultimately surrendered the painting to ICE after he discovered it had been stolen.

Egyptian sarcophagus

An ancient Egyptian sarcophagus was returned to the Arab Republic of Egypt by ICE and CBP officials on March 10, 2010, at the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. A CBP officer in Miami examined the wooden coffin for agricultural concerns during routine inspections of goods coming into the U.S. and was concerned that the coffin might require a permit. The officer referred the item to ICE for investigation. ICE was able to track the sale of the sarcophagus to a U.S. citizen, who was neither an art dealer nor a broker. Due to the absence of a credible provenance, the item was seized and returned to Egypt in accordance with its Cultural Patrimony Laws.

Russian pendant of Peter the Great

ICE returned a silver pendant engraved with the image of Peter the Great to Russian authorities in Moscow on March 4, 2010. Peter the Great served as the Tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725. The engraved pendant, which weighs about two grams, is believed to have been crafted by artisans in Russia in the late 18th or 19th century. This pendant was among 1,200 other historical items linked to Peter the Great that were given to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1947. In 2006, the museum announced that more than 200 items from its permanent collection, including the silver pendant, had been stolen. Russian authorities contacted ICE after they learned that an antiques dealer in Seattle was selling a pendant that looked very similar to the stolen one. ICE agents in Washington were able to recover the pendant and turned it over for forensic examination by experts with the Moscow Kremlin Museum.

ICE returns artifacts and antiquities to Iraq Embassy

On Feb. 25, 2010, the United States returned six Iraqi artifacts to the government of Iraq after investigation by ICE. The items ranged from Iraq’s ancient past to its recent political history. They included a Babylonian clay foundation cone, ca. 2100 B.C.; a Sumerian bronze foundation cone and stone tablet with inscription, ca. 2500 B.C. to 1800 B.C.; an Iraqi coin, ca. 250 B.C.; neo-Assyrian gold earrings ca. 8-7th Century B.C.; and an AK-47 bearing Saddam Hussein’s image that may have been a gift given to his closest followers.

ICE announces the forfeiture of a Pissarro artwork as stolen property

On Jan. 12, 2010, ICE announced the forfeiture of a work by the artist Camille Pissarro known as Le Marché, following a one-week jury trial. ICE seized Le Marché from Sotheby's New York in November 2006. In 1981, it was stolen by Emile Guelton, who walked out of the Faure Museum in Aix-les-Bains, France, with the work under his jacket. In 1985, Guelton came to an art gallery in San Antonio, Texas, and asked the gallery owner, Jay Adelman, to sell Le Marché for him. Sharyl Davis, who was using space in the art gallery at the time, purchased Le Marché for $8,500. In early 2003, Davis consigned Le Marché to Sotheby's for an auction in which Sotheby's estimated the auction price range to be from $60,000 to $80,000. After Sotheby's asked for the artwork’s provenance information, Guelton’s information appeared in the auction catalog leading French officers to locate, contact and interview him. Guelton confirmed that he knew Adelman, was living in Texas in 1985, sent a container of artwork from France to the United States in 1984 and sold Adelman paintings.

ICE returns stolen religious artifacts to Peru

On Dec. 11, 2009, ICE returned to the Peruvian government eight cultural religious artifacts. The artifacts, which were seized in 2007 and 2008, include two small wooden statutes, a metal statue, two pendants, a crucifix, a painting and church vestments. In 2007, the Peruvian government contacted ICE about the alleged illegal sale of Peruvian cultural property in the United States. ICE investigated and obtained information that a Miami resident was allegedly selling the items on eBay. ICE seized an 18th century vestment chest full of gold and silver church vestments. In 2008, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at Miami International Airport encountered the same Miami resident after arriving from Peru. An inspection of the individual's luggage revealed multiple items believed to be part of the cultural patrimony of Peru. CBP officers detained all the items and contacted ICE.

ICE returns stolen artifacts to Italy

On Dec. 2, 2009, ICE returned cultural artifacts, including a Corinthian column krater and a Pompeii wall panel fresco, to the government of Italy. The column krater dates back to 580 to 570 B.C. ICE agents recovered it from Christie's auction house in June 2009. The investigation into the Corinthian column krater revealed it may have been illegally introduced into the art market in 1985. The fresco panel was located at the excavation office in Pompeii between 1903 and 1904 and was reported stolen 12 years ago. This fresco panel, which was the subject of an international search by INTERPOL, was located by the Art Loss Register of New York, which brought it to the attention of Italian authorities and ICE.

ICE, CBP return prehistoric fossils to China

On Sept. 14, 2009, ICE and CBP returned prehistoric fossils to the Chinese government. The fossils, dating back 100 millions of years ago, included bones of a saber-toothed cat and over 24 fossilized dinosaur eggs. The artifacts were seized by CBP during routine inspections of goods coming into the United States and some are the subject of an ongoing investigation into violations of export and import laws. The parcels were turned over to ICE for further investigation.

ICE returns painting stolen during Holocaust to family

On Dec. 1, 2009, ICE returned a portrait of a young girl by famous Belgian artist Antoine (Anto) Carte to its owner 69 years after it was stolen by the Nazis. The child depicted in the portrait fled Brussels with her family during the Nazi occupation and survived the war in the Belgian countryside. In November 2008, ICE received information from the Art Loss Register that led ICE investigators and the U.S. Attorney's Office to a Long Island art gallery. The U.S. owner was informed that the painting had been stolen by the Nazis and cooperated in forfeiting the painting. The painting, valued at about $15,000, was returned to the family by the ICE attaché in Belgium.

ICE returns 16th century Rabbinic Bible looted by Nazis

On Nov. 9, 2009, ICE retuned a 16th century two-volume Hebrew Bible to its owners 71 years after it was stolen by the Nazis. The Rabbinic Bible, published between 1516 and1517, is a manuscript that includes an Aramaic summary and a series of commentaries by key medieval rabbinic scholars. The Bible was illegally imported into the United States in March 2009. The New York City auction house Kestenbaum & Company had offered it for sale in its June 2009 catalog; an ICE investigation determined the origin of the Bible described in the catalog. Once agents provided proof of the Bible's provenance and prior ownership, the auction house immediately agreed to return it to its owners.

More than 1,000 artifacts, from four investigations, returned to Iraq

In one of the largest repatriations to date, on Sept. 15, 2008, ICE returned 1,044 cultural antiquities to the government of Iraq that were seized in four separate investigations dating to 2001. The items, which included terra cotta cones inscribed in Cuneiform text, a praying goddess figurine that was once imbedded in a Sumerian temple and coins bearing the likenesses of ancient emperors, are an illustration of the long and varied history of the country now known as Iraq. Remnants of ancient Cuneiform tablets, which were seized by the Customs Service in 2001, were recovered from beneath the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001 and will be restored in Iraq. The objects were turned over in a ceremony at the Embassy of Iraq, where Iraqi Ambassador Samir Shakir al-Sumaydi accepted on behalf of his government.

More than 60 pre-Columbian artifacts returned to Colombia

On July 8, 2008, in a Miami ceremony, ICE returned to the Colombian government 60 artifacts that were seized in a joint 2005 investigation with the Broward County, Fl., Sheriff’s Office. The artifacts, which included ancient pottery, gold pieces and emeralds, some as old as 500 B.C., were stolen from Colombia and smuggled into the United States. The artifacts’ ages and authenticity were confirmed by University of Florida’s Dr. Carol Damian. ICE agents arrested and charged a 66-year-old Italian national, Ugo Bagnato, with sale and receipt of stolen goods. He was convicted and served 17 months in federal prison, after which he was deported.

"Bactrian Bronze Age" tomb items turned over to Afghan museum director

In a special program at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2008, ICE officials turned over to the Afghan national museum director, Omara Masoudi, eight items that had been illegally removed from Afghanistan and smuggled into the United States. The items, including the metal remnants of a spear, two axes, a dagger and knife blades, were authenticated by Dr. Paul Jett, lead scientist and conservator at the Smithsonian Institute, as dating to 2000 B.C., a period in Afghanistan known as the Bactrian Bronze Age. They were probably from excavations at burial sites in northern Afghanistan. The objects were the subject of a “Dateline NBC” 2005 undercover operation for the television show. “Dateline” turned them over to ICE. Unfortunately, at the time, Afghan cultural artifacts were not protected by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property Protection. The country signed the pact in 2007, allowing the repatriation to take place.

Huge cache of smuggled rare fossils sent back to Argentina

On May 10, 2008, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for ICE Julie L. Myers, returned more than 8,100 pounds of rare fossils to Argentina. Dr. Jose Nun, Minister of Culture, and Dr. Leonardo Salgado of the Museum of Geological and Paleontological Artifacts accepted the antiquities on behalf of the Argentine people. The rare prehistoric fossils had been illegally removed from Argentina and brought into the United States. The cache, including prehistoric pine cones and dinosaur eggs, was seized two years earlier by ICE agents at a gem and mineral show in Tucson, Ariz. The fossils' return sends an important message about ongoing international efforts to combat the trafficking of cultural artifacts and prehistoric specimens.

U.S. arrests, convicts U.S. Army pilot for dealing in stolen Egyptian antiquities

On Feb. 6, 2008, ICE announced the arrest of Edward George Johnson, an active U.S. Army helicopter pilot, on charges relating to his sale of stolen Egyptian antiquities. In late September 2002, approximately 370 pre-dynastic artifacts were stolen from the Ma'adi Museum near Cairo, Egypt. The artifacts, dating to 3000 B.C. and earlier, were originally discovered during an excavation in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. Johnson was charged with one count of transportation of stolen property and one count of wire fraud. He pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and was sentenced in September 2008 to 18 months probation and was ordered to make restitution to the antiquities dealer to whom he sold the artifacts.

Pre-Columbian grinding tools seized at border, returned to Mexico

On Jan. 25, 2008, ICE returned three pre-Columbian grinding tools to Mexico that an Arizona man attempted to bring into the United States illegally the year before. In a brief ceremony at the port of entry in Naco, Ariz., the manos and metates were returned to Elisa Villapando, an archaeology professor at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Hermosillo, Sonora. The artifacts were seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the Naco port of entry in June 2007. ICE agents took the artifacts to the University of Arizona for evaluation, where they were determined to have significant cultural value. No charges were brought against the Arizona man after he surrendered the items so they could be returned to Mexico.

Ancient marble sculpture of Roman emperor restored to Algerian government

On Jan. 15, 2008, ICE returned an ancient marble sculpture of the head of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to Algerian Ambassador Amine Kherbi in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The 200-pound statuette had been stolen along with eight others in the 1996 robbery of an Algerian museum in the seaside town of Skikda. ICE seized it from Christie's auction house in New York, where it had been featured for sale on the cover of its catalogue. Dating from the second century, the 3-foot-high marble likeness of Marcus Aurelius was created when what is now Algeria was part of the Roman Empire. The piece was spotted by INTERPOL as it emerged in the international market of cultural antiquities. INTERPOL alerted ICE that it might be a stolen artifact. ICE experts worked with Algerian scholars to verify the statue's identity and then notified the U.S. auction house that the piece was subject to seizure. The seizure was not contested.

U.S. repatriates pre-Columbian Mayan artifact to Guatemalan government

On Oct. 1, 2007, a pre-Columbian Mayan artifact at least 1,200 years old was returned to the Guatemalan government at a ceremony in Chicago, after it was seized the previous year from a traveler by federal agents at O'Hare International Airport. This repatriation resulted from a joint investigation between ICE and CBP. On March 27, 2006, the traveler claimed the artifact had been given to him as a gift by a Guatemalan family in exchange for volunteer work he had performed for them. Although the traveler was not criminally charged, the artifact was seized for being illegally brought into the United States, which violates the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.

Stolen antique vessel turned over to Egyptian representatives in New York

On Aug. 9, 2007, ICE officials returned an antique vessel in the form of an alabaster duck to the Egyptian at its consular offices in Manhattan. The vessel, which is over 4,500 years old, had been stolen from the Egyptian Antiquities Inspectorate in 1979. In 2006, the antiquity was to be offered for sale at Christie's auction house in New York City, which advised ICE officials of the auction. When ICE confirmed that the antiquity had been stolen, Christie's withdrew the object from the sale and surrendered it to ICE. The sale price of the object was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000.

Peruvian government accepts more than 400 recovered pre-Columbian artifacts

On June 13, 2007, ICE officials returned 412 pre-Columbian artifacts to the Peruvian government that were seized in Florida in 2005 following a joint investigation between ICE and the Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO). ICE agents and BSO officers discovered the artifacts during the execution of three federal search warrants at various South Florida locations. The artifacts, which include ancient pottery, burial shrouds and gold jewelry, were stolen from Peru and illegally smuggled into the United States. This is believed to be one of the largest seizures of pre-Columbian artifacts smuggled into the United States. ICE agents arrested and charged 66-year-old Italian national Ugo Bagnato with the receipt and sale of stolen goods. Bagnato was found guilty and served 17 months in federal prison, which made him subject to removal from the United States.

Stone idol discovered in New York returned to Indian government

On April 17, 2006, ICE returned a stolen 250-pound, 9th- Century stone idol to the Indian after investigators in New York seized it in the course of investigating leads from ITERPOL and Indian police. ICE agents in New York City launched an investigation in 2003 that led to Namkha Dorjee, owner of the Bodhi Citta Gallery operating out of a Manhattan apartment. The gallery owner voluntarily surrendered the idol to ICE.

Ancient coins seized and returned to Saudi Ambassador

On March 6, 2006, ICE returned to the Saudi government 132 pounds of ancient coins that had been illegally removed from a sunken shipwreck in the Red Sea. ICE agents in Miami followed a tip that led them to a Key West man who admitted to taking the coins while on a recreational dive in Saudi Arabia in 1994. An INTERPOL alert posted by Saudi law enforcement provided additional information on the coins. Records show that the diver communicated in Internet chat rooms that focused on Islamic coins to learn how to restore the coins and to solicit possible buyers. Agents, acting in an undercover capacity, engaged the suspect via email, eventually confronting him in person with the facts of the case. The subject surrendered the coins to agents on April 7, 2005, and the coins were administratively forfeited on July 9, 2005.

Vase seized from Getty museum returned to Italy

On Nov. 10, 2005, a 2,300-year-old vase that was allegedly smuggled out of Italy and ended up in Los Angeles in the Getty Museum’s antiquities collection arrived in Rome, capping a joint effort by Italian authorities, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and ICE to return the artifact to its home. The rare, hand-painted, “Calyx krater,” considered one of the best works by renowned Italian vase painter Asteas, has an appraised value of approximately $350,000. According to the forfeiture complaint filed in the case, the vase was unearthed by a laborer doing maintenance work on Italy’s canals during the 1970s. After an initial request in 1999 to have the krater returned under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, the Italians intensified their efforts to secure the vase’s return in early 2005, maintaining that the artifact was a crucial piece of evidence in the trial of two Americans charged with antiquities trafficking.

Stolen colonial altarpiece located in New Mexico and returned to Peru

On July 26, 2005, Eduardo Ferraro, Peru’s ambassador to the United States, announced the return by ICE of El Altar de Challapampa (The Altar of Challapampa) to Peru. In January 2002, the altarpiece was reported stolen from its temporary location near Lake Titicaca at Challapampa, Peru. In May 2003, the ICE New York field office launched an investigation and discovered the artifact in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at Ron Messick Fine Arts and Antiquities. ICE worked closely with INTERPOL and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York to seek criminal prosecution of Messick, who died in the course of the investigation. The executors of his estate voluntarily surrendered the artifact to ICE. The altarpiece, weighing more than 800 pounds and standing 12 feet tall, features a polychrome wooden carving of the angels Michael and Gabriel beneath a crucifix.

Two rare 2,000-year-old coins handed over to president of Afghanistan

On May 23, 2005, in a ceremony at the Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., ICE returned to President Hamid Karzai two rare coins estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. They were believed to have been looted during unrest in Afghanistan following the departure of Russian forces in 1988. The coins were originally discovered during a 1971 French-led archeological excavation at Ai Khanoum (on the Oxus River in the Northeastern portion of Afghanistan). These Indo-Greek coins of Agathokles, dating between 171 and 160 B.C., were created following the reign of Alexander the Great. After Russian forces left Afghanistan, the two coins were among many artifacts stolen from the Afghan National Museum. In December 2003, the ICE’s Baltimore field office recovered the coins from a Maryland coin dealer. The coins were estimated to be worth $1,000 dollars each.

ICE and Thai Police arrest smuggler selling dinosaur fossils over the Internet

On Feb. 25, 2005, ICE and the Royal Thai Police (RTP) announced the culmination of an eight-month investigation into the illegal possession, sale and exportation of more than 1,300 pounds of priceless fossils and Thai and Khmer cultural antiquities. The ICE Attaché in Bangkok received information that a Thai national identified as Piriya Vachajitpan was selling Thai and Cambodian antiquities via on-line auction and illegally shipping the artifacts to the United States. ICE agents, working closely with the RTP, maintained undercover contact with Vachajitpan and discussed the purchase of indigenous fossils from Thailand, as well as Buddha images from both Thailand and Cambodia. Following examination of the fossils, the RTP placed Vachajitpan under arrest for attempting to sell and export Thai artifacts in violation of Thai law. Based on an authentication of the fossils, the RTP executed a search warrant at Vachajitpan’s residence and seized approximately 500-600 kilograms (1,100-1,320 lbs.) of fossils.

16th-century Mexican altarpiece stolen from convent returned to Mexico

In April 2004, ICE agents seized a stolen, 500-year-old Judeo-Christian altarpiece that was being offered for sale at $225,000 in an art consignment shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. ICE’s investigation determined that the altarpiece had been stolen in April 2001 from a convent in Puebla, Mexico. It was returned to Mexico.

Multi-state investigations seize ancient Peruvian artifacts

In April 2004, ICE returned a variety of recovered artifacts to the government of Peru. The artifacts were seized in three separate ICE investigations into antiquities smugglers and dealers in several states after being smuggled from protected archeological sites in Peru by individuals who sought them for their personal collections or who intended to sell them for profit. Dating from 100 A.D. to 1,530 A.D., the items came from Mochica, Chimu and Chancay cultures. They included a rare mother-of-pearl knife, gold ornaments, nose jewelry, copper pins, pottery and textile fragments.

1898 Borchardt Luger pistol, stolen from museum, returned to Switzerland

In February 2004, ICE returned to Switzerland the oldest surviving example of a prototype self-loading 1898 Borchardt Luger pistol. The pistol was stolen in 1996 from Switzerland’s former Waffenfabrik museum. After months of investigation, ICE agents in Texas seized the rare pistol from an internationally known antique firearms collector. A British auction house later determined that the 106-year-old pistol, worth approximately $720,000, had been stolen from the Swiss. A former curator of the Waffenfabrik museum and his son were prosecuted in the theft in Switzerland.

14th-century manuscript restored to Vienna Jewish Community

In November 2003, ICE returned a 14th-century Hebrew manuscript, stolen by the Nazis during World War II, to the Jewish Community Organization of Vienna, Austria. The manuscript is one of the oldest versions of the Kabalistic text known as “Sepher Yetzirah” and is valued at approximately $68,000. The ICE investigation began in March 2002, when a newspaper article reported that the manuscript was to be sold at a New York auction house. The probe revealed that Aaron Stefansky, a U.S. citizen, had smuggled the manuscript into the United States after purchasing it from an antiquities dealer in Israel. On June 10, 2002, ICE agents seized the manuscript after determining that it had been stolen from the Jewish library in Vienna. In March 2003, Stefansky was arrested and pleaded guilty to his role in smuggling the manuscript for commercial purposes. Stefansky was later sentenced to probation and fined in the Southern District of New York.

1,400-year-old Mayan artifacts repatriated to Honduras

In September 2003, ICE returned 279 smuggled pre-Columbian artifacts to the government of Honduras. The Pre-Colombian artifacts, which included ornate figurines, bowls, and pottery made by the Mayan culture in Honduras between approximately 600 and 900 A.D., had been purchased in Honduras and illegally smuggled into the United States in 1998. Douglas Hall, 45, of Ohio, and Tulio Monterroso-Bonilla, 39, of Guatemala, traveled to Honduras, where they purchased the artifacts for $11,000, according to a federal indictment. The items were then shipped through Miami and falsely declared as having a value of $37. They were later offered for sale at a shop in Ohio. ICE investigators discovered that the articles had been smuggled, and in June 2002, a federal grand jury in Ohio indicted Hall and Monterroso-Bonilla in connection with the smuggling effort. Hall was convicted in October 2002, sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined. Monterroso-Bonilla pleaded guilty in August 2002 to transporting smuggled artifacts.

Ancient alabaster stele goes home to Yemen after criminal investigation

An ICE investigation of Phoenix Ancient Art and owners, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, found that they were allegedly trafficking in illegally obtained art and antiquities, both violations of the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property and the Cultural Property Implementation Act. The Aboutaam brothers, Lebanese nationals with Canadian citizenship, are major suppliers of museum- quality antiquities from their galleries in New York, Switzerland and Lebanon. In May 2003, Aboutaam’s attempted to sell, via Sotheby’s auction house a piece known as the South Arabian Alabaster Stele for approximately $20,000 to $30,000. Sotheby’s authenticated the stele but declined to auction this artifact. ICE’s attaché in Rome assisted and obtained proof from Yemen authorities that the stele was stolen. It was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and eventually returned to Yemen.

Updated: 01/07/2021