BEIRUT — For roughly a decade Lebanese antiquities collector and dealer Georges Lotfi has been a valuable informant on some of the highest-profile antiquities busts in recent years. A tip from him kicked off an operation that culminated in authorities confiscating a multimillion-dollar Ancient Egyptian coffin from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2019, which triggered an ongoing international investigation into $56 million worth of stolen Egyptian artifacts held by major Western museums, according to ARTnews.
But in a stunning turn of events, anti-trafficking authorities in New York have issued an arrest warrant for Lotfi, age 81, charging him with 24 counts of criminal possession of stolen property, including possession of nine looted Lebanese mosaics, which have been seized alongside 15 Syrian artifacts.
According to court documents filed by investigators in New York, it was Lotfi himself who invited agents to inspect antiquities he held in a New Jersey storage unit, which they did early last year. In an affidavit, investigator Robert Mancene claimed that Lotfi knew the objects were stolen but believed that he had created a good enough paper trail that investigators would not be able to tell they were stolen. Then, according to Mancene, Lotfi would be able to use the fact of the agents’ visit as evidence of their legality when selling or donating the artifacts, increasing their salability or the value of the tax write-off if they were donated. Instead, the 24 items were seized.
Investigators contend that Lotfi has also trafficked other stolen Libyan, Egyptian and Lebanese antiquities over the decades, but the charges filed this month are limited to the 24 items in the New Jersey storage unit.
Lotfi could not be located for comment but in an interview given to The New York Times, Lotfi denied the accusations and said his collection is sanctioned by the Lebanese government. He said that the investigators, with whom he had had worked for “10 years” to “stop illicit trading” had “turned against” him and were using the charges as an effort to gain publicity. In a comment to The Art Newspaper, Lotfi said he “made the mistake of developing a friendship with” the investigators and will “very soon” refute the allegations against him, which he said “altered or misinterpreted some situations and statements” he had made.
The Lebanese Ministry of Culture did not immediately reply to requests for comment. The director general of antiquities said he was not authorized to comment.
The investigation into Lotfi began in 2017 when a marble bull’s head stolen from Lebanon during the country’s 1975-90 Civil War turned up in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum’s record of where the art came from — the history of an item is known as ‘provenance’ in art lingo — listed Lotfi as the first documented owner of the $12 million relic.
A second marble sculpture, worth $10 million and believed to come from the same 1960s archeological dig in Saida, was seized at Lotfi’s apartment in New York. A third item from the same dig was found by Lebanese customs officials in a container Lotfi had shipped from New York to Tripoli, according to the court documents.
Lotfi told investigators he bought the three works in the 1980s from Farid Ziadeh, “a well-known licensed dealer” in Lebanon, according to Lotfi. Five of the latest batch of 24 seized antiquities were allegedly also purchased from Ziadeh during the Civil War era. L’Orient Today could not locate Ziadeh for comment.
The three Saida relics were excavated in 1967 before being moved to a storage facility in Jbeil for safekeeping in December 1979 amid the ongoing Civil War, according to an investigation by the chief of New York’s antiquities trafficking unit Matthew Bogdanos. The facility was looted by Kataeb fighters in the summer of 1981 and the antiquities disappeared for decades before two of the trio turned up in New York, according to Bogdanos.
All three are now in Lebanon, after American authorities returned the two found in New York in 2017.
Under Lebanese law, antiquities excavated from licensed digs are automatically property of the state, and even antiquities discovered by chance on private property must be reported to the government, which can choose whether or not to acquire them. It is illegal to export any human-created objects made before the year 1700 CE from Lebanon without a permit, no matter where they came from initially.
According to the New York-based investigators, Lotfi did not apply for a permit to export the nine Lebanese mosaics or the 15 Syrian artifacts from Lebanon, thus violating Lebanese law. Since he does not have permission from the Lebanese government to possess these items, the investigators consider them stolen under New York law, and subject to being sent back to Lebanon and handed over to the government.
Lebanon is no stranger to smuggling, both as a country from which objects are looted and as a destination for looted objects from elsewhere. In February, Lebanon repatriated 337 archeological artifacts previously kept at the Nabu Museum in North Lebanon to Iraq after the Iraqi government declared them stolen. The founder of the museum, businessman Jawad Adra, denied wrongdoing in the acquisition of the artifacts.