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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
06/18/2015

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ICE repatriates famous artwork stolen from Brazil

NEW YORK — A famous painting and statue, which were smuggled into the United States in violation of customs law and were forfeited to the government as a result, were returned to nation of Brazil in a ceremony in Manhattan Thursday.

These repatriations resulted from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with the assistance of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Brazil.

The painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, called “Hannibal, or “The Basquiat” as well as a Roman Togatus statue, were returned to Brazil at a repatriation ceremony at the United States Attorney’s Office in New York City. 

"It is always a pleasure to return cultural artifacts to the people of another nation,” said HSI Deputy Special Agent in Charge Michael Shea, of HSI Boston. “I would like to thank our special agents and partners at INTERPOL for their diligence in this investigation. ICE will do everything in its power to help preserve and safeguard a nation's history by identifying, locating, and recovering stolen antiquities."

“Art and antiquities have special value and meaning that cannot readily be quantified,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, of the Southern District of New York. “As a result, they have long been the subject of theft and deception, as well as a means to launder illicit proceeds.  Art should serve to inspire the mind and nourish the soul, and not be allowed to become a conduit for crime.”

In related repatriation ceremonies held on Sept. 21, 2010, and May 9, 2014, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office returned to Brazil three paintings – “Modern Painting with Yellow Interweave” by Roy Lichtenstein (the “Lichtenstein”), “Figures dans une structure” by Joaquin Torres-Garcia (the “Torres-Garcia”), and “Composition abstraite” by Serge Poliakoff (the “Poliakoff”) – that were smuggled into the United States.

The Basquiat and the Togatus once belonged to Brazilian banker Edemar Cid Ferreira.  Ferreira, the founder and former president of Banco Santos, S.A. (“Banco Santos”), was convicted in Brazil of crimes against the national financial system and money laundering.  In December 2006, Ferreira was sentenced in Brazil to 21 years in prison.

As part of the case, a Sao Paulo Court judge also ordered the search, seizure, and confiscation of assets that Ferreira, his associates, and members of his family had acquired with unlawfully obtained funds from Banco Santos.  Those assets included the Basquiat, the Togatus, the Lichtenstein, the Torres-Garcia, the Poliakoff, and other artwork valued at $20 million to $30 million.  The artwork was kept in several locations, including Ferreira’s home in the Morumbi neighborhood of Sao Paulo, the main offices of Banco Santos, and at a holding facility.  When Brazilian authorities searched these locations, they found that several of the most valuable works of art were missing, including the Basquiat and the Togatus.

The Sao Paulo Court sought INTERPOL’s assistance after searching museums and institutions in Brazil for the missing artwork.  In October and November 2007, INTERPOL and the Government of Brazil sought the assistance of the United States to locate and seize the missing works on behalf of the Brazilian government.  The ensuing Southern District of New York and HSI investigation revealed that the Basquiat and the Togatus were shipped from the Netherlands to a secure storage facility in New York on Aug. 21, 2007, and Sept. 11, 2007, respectively.  The invoices, however, failed to comply with U.S. customs laws in a number of respects.  For example, the shipping invoices did not identify the pieces and falsely claimed that their value was $100 each.  In fact, the Basquiat alone was recently appraised at $8 million.

HSI special agents based in New Haven, Connecticut, located and seized the Basquiat in November 2007, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed a civil forfeiture Complaint alleging that the Basquiat had been brought into the United States illegally.  Since the filing of the original Complaint in February 2008, the United States seized additional works of art and filed two amended Complaints seeking the forfeiture of the Lichtenstein, the Torres-Garcia, the Poliakoff, and the Togatus.

After extensive litigation, United States District Court Judge Richard J. Sullivan granted the government’s motion for summary judgment and entered an order forfeiting the Basquiat and the Togatus on May 10, 2013.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Sullivan’s order on Sept. 9, 2014.

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 06/19/2015