In a cinematic twist to a saga that could have already made a box-office hit, another player was charged in an international crime ring that has trafficked looted antiquities into some of the world’s highest profile museums. On August 3, the Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) Office issued an arrest warrant for longtime informant Georges Lotfi — a Lebanese pharmaceutical mogul with homes in New York, Lebanon, and France — who has been charged with criminal possession of stolen property.
In 2018, Lotfi tipped off the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) to the murky provenance of the Met’s first-century BCE gilded Egyptian coffin, which was returned in 2019. Lofti put the ATU in contact with an unnamed trafficker of the coffin, according to the search warrant. According to a 2019 letter from the DA to the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, the first documentation of the coffin appeared in photographs sent to Roben Dib, a German-Lebanese gallery owner who was one of three leaders of the trafficking ring. Another of the leaders, Christophe Kunicki, was arrested in 2020 for money laundering and fraud.
That ring has unraveled quickly over the last few months. In March, French authorities arrested Dib, who had brokered an $8.5 million antiquities sale to the Louvre Abu Dhabi; in May, they charged the former president of the Louvre in Paris with antiquities trafficking; and in late July, they took two collection advisors for the Louvre Abu Dhabi into custody, alleging that they had put “an excess of confidence” into Kunicki.
In New York, the Manhattan DA’s Office seized $3 million worth of smuggled antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late May.
Lotfi’s criminal activity, however, has been on the radar of the Manhattan DA’s ATU since 2017, when a $12 million 2,300-year-old bull’s head at the Met was first suspected to have been looted from Eshmun, Lebanon. (In the Met’s provenance information, Lotfi was listed as the object’s first owner.) That same year, a $10 million ancient marble torso surfaced for sale. The ATU discovered that the torso and the bull’s head had both been looted from Eshmun in the 1980s, during the Lebanese Civil War. The Met returned the bull’s head to Lebanon and the DA seized the torso from Lotfi’s Fifth Avenue apartment. Later on, the Lebanese authorities discovered a third object — scavenged from that same site — which Lotfi had sent from New York to Tripoli, Lebanon.
In a 2018 email to the ATU, Lotfi explained that he purchased the three artifacts in the 1980s from a “well-known licensed dealer” in Lebanon who was “qualified for conservation of archaeological objects.” According to the search warrant, reviewed by Hyperallergic, the DA’s office wasn’t convinced.
Homeland Security agent Robert Mancene wrote in the warrant: “[Lotfi] has demonstrated not only his intimate knowledge of the illegal trade in antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa, but also his acute awareness of the hallmarks of looted antiquities from his extended involvement in buying, selling, or otherwise dealing in antiquities — thereby revealing to me his awareness of the stolen nature of his own antiquities.”
The affidavit adds that Lotfi was in contact with the head of the ATU Matthew Bogdanos “for the better part of a decade, with the Defendant often serving as a valuable source of information on numerous antiquities-smuggling investigations.”
In 2018, when he tipped off the ATU to the gold coffin, Lotfi asked for money for his information, a request that the ATU has denied.
“Is there any financial reward if a [sic] serious information will lead to the discovery of a valuable looted artifact?? I am not asking this for my personal interest,” Lotfi wrote in a 2018 email, explaining that his alleged third party could provide documents, photographs, names, and routing information that could uncover false provenance.
Meanwhile, Lotfi himself amassed an expansive collection of antiquities. He apparently planned to sell the objects or donate them to museums, and starting in 2017, he made “repeated requests” to the ATU to examine his collection.
“In his mind, any investigation by the ATU that did not result in the seizure of the antiquities would permit him to sell or donate (for tax benefits) these otherwise unsalable items,” reads the warrant.
In 2017, Lotfi signed a “Consent to Search” form and gave the ATU the key to one of his two New Jersey storage units.
“Based on my conversations with the Defendant over the last several years,” wrote Mancene in the affidavit, “I believe the Defendant thought he had laundered the antiquities so well and had created such good (albeit false) provenance that he did not think the ATU would be able to determine their true origin.”
Last February, the ATU inspected Lotfi’s storage unit, photographing and documenting the objects they found. In July of 2021, they obtained a search warrant and seized 24 antiquities (22 from the storage unit and two from an art shipping company).
“I was fighting with them for 10 years to stop illicit trading, and they turned against me,” Lotfi told the New York Times.
The seized artifacts include an expansive collection of mosaics, most of which were looted from Lebanon and Syria and purchased by Lotfi in the 1980s. The objects also include the “Palmyra Stone,” a Syrian funerary relief from the second-century CE.
“Informant #2,” who the warrant identifies as a “smuggler of looted antiquities,” told authorities that he saw the work in Lotfi’s Dubai warehouse in 2010 or 2011, a particularly damning timeline given that during this time period, the Islamic State was looting Palmyra and selling antiquities on the black market.
According to the search warrant, Lotfi still has antiquities for sale that have yet to be seized.
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