As U.S. authorities continue their efforts to identify and return looted and stolen cultural property to their countries of origin, the identities of a growing number of bad actors and antiquities trafficking networks are coming to light.
For example, a recent announcement by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg regarding the return of 19 antiques to Italy revealed charges against New York antiques dealer Michael Ward, who operates a gallery on the Upper East Side for almost four decades.
The criminal charges were reported by the ARCA Blog (Association for Research on Crimes Against Art) in an October 12 article by Lynda Albertson. “In what became a rather boilerplate restitution press release, the (prosecutor’s office) slipped in a nice little Easter egg by highlighting three of the items going back to Italy,” she wrote , highlighting a one-line reference to “Michael L. Ward (born 1943), a New York City antiques dealer who ran a series of eponymous ancient art business entities.
Ward & Co, which has had a space at 980 Madison Avenue since 1982, is listed as “temporarily closed” and phone calls to the listed number have gone unanswered. According to the release, Ward helped facilitate the illicit trade of a gilded bronze plaque dating from the 1st to 2nd centuries CE. Ward was convicted of criminal facilitation in September.
However, the scope of the allegations against Ward, as revealed in court documents, is much wider. It lists 40 items stolen from Italy, Greece and Turkey over the years, with values ranging from $20,000 for a bronze right hand from a male statue in Turkey, to $4 million for a bronze plaque. gilded bronze with a satyr from Italy.
As ARCA points out, this isn’t the first time Ward’s business practices have come under scrutiny from authorities. “He is the same fox in the federal government’s henhouse who was previously appointed by then-President George HW Bush in 1992 to serve on the United States Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee, the body U.S. statutory body responsible for national implementation. of the UNESCO Convention on the Measures to Prohibit and Prevent the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970.”
Shortly after his appointment by President Bush, Ward was placed under surveillance due to his attempt to sell 50 pieces of important Mycenaean jewelry, called Aidonia’s treasure. The gold burial pieces date from the 15th century BCE and were stolen in 1978 from a Mycenaean cemetery in Aidonia, near Nemea in southern Greece.
Ward was able to escape criminal prosecution thanks to a December 1993 out-of-court settlement in which Greece agreed to drop its lawsuit in exchange for its donation of the jewelry to the Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage in Washington, D.C., according to ARCA. Despite these run-ins with the law, Ward clearly continued to engage in and profit from illicit buying and selling activities. antiquities “via several networks of suppliers, who one by one and over the years, revealed themselves to be corrupt”.
Last month, Ward was charged with fourth-degree criminal facilitation, a misdemeanor, according to documents filed in New York State Supreme Court. The district attorney determined that all 40 items listed in the charges were stolen from their respective countries of origin.
Court documents cite testimony from Homeland Security agent Robert Fromkin, who wrote that a review of bank records recovered by German law enforcement authorities in July 2022 from bank accounts belonging to Eugene Alexander showed that Ward helped him commit related crimes. Alexander (aka Evgeni Svetoslavov Mutafchiev) is a Bulgarian national residing in Germany and one of several antiquities traffickers under active investigation by the District Attorney’s Office.
The documents reviewed also indicated to Fromkin that, from 1999 to 2022, Alexander ran a money laundering scheme in which he sold looted antiquities to European and American collectors, including Michael Steinhardt, Richard Beale de Roma Numismatics and Erdal Dere from the Fortuna galleries, among others, using a series of shells offshore companies and banks for payments.
After a District investigation Prosecutor’s Unit against Antiquities Trafficking (ATU) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Steinhardt has achieved “deferred prosecution agreement” and agreed to return 180 stolen antiques worth nearly $70 million.
Beale was also recently convicted, following an investigation by the ATU and the HSI, according to the newspapers. Erdal Dere is currently facing charges in the Southern District of New York.
As part of Alexander’s money laundering scheme, Ward received more than 100 antiques from Alexander between 2015 and 2019, according to the newspapers. At least 80 of these were looted antiquities that Alexander had shipped to the Ward Gallery in New York.
Fromkin wrote that as part of a multinational investigation by the ATU, HSI, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom into Alexander, Ward and others, German authorities searched the apartment of Alexander in February 2022, which included the recovery of Alexander’s computers. There they found photographs that the looters had sent to Alexander numerous antiquities from which the said objects appeared to have been recently looted and had not yet been cleaned or restored.
“It is well established that looters and traffickers often take and preserve photographs of an antique in its post-looted condition to demonstrate authenticity of the antique to potential buyers,” according to Fromkin’s statement.
Alexander subsequently arranged for their restoration, took digital photographs of the pieces once they were cleaned and sent the photographs to Ward.
Ward then emailed the post-cleanup photos to the Art Loss Register, which maintains a database of stolen art. Part of the documentation was false, such as an email dated September 28, 2017 containing a photograph of a antique and an invoice indicating a certain provenance. “I know that the invoice was false because it indicated that the defendant had received the item from a gallery. But the gallery didn’t do itIt doesn’t even exist in the year the invoice said it was sold to (Ward),” according to Fromkin.
Ward said he would plead guilty in open court to the charge “with a promised sentence of conditional discharge for a period of one year… the conditions of which are that he surrenders additional antiquities, if any, which he or (the District Attorney) identifies in his possession and which have been sold, consigned, or previously owned by Eugene Alexander.
Ward will also help Italy and Germany in its investigation and prosecution of Alexander, according to court documents. In exchange, the public prosecutor will not bring any additional charges against Ward. He is also immune from prosecution in Italy.
Certainly, Ward appears to take only partial responsibility for his actions, writing in his plea agreement: “I began doing business with Eugene Alexander in the late 1990s, and since then I have purchased or taken on consignment from Alexander many multi-million dollar antiques through Ward and Co …In meetings my lawyer and I have had with the prosecutor over the past few months, I have become convinced that Mr. Alexander was trading in antiquities that had been illegally removed from their country and had provided me provenances of antiques that were not accurate. I was shocked by the compelling evidence pointing to this. I wasn’t before I am aware of this… I have also been informed by the prosecution that Mr. Alexander was involved in money laundering. From 2017 to 2019, Mr. Alexander asked me to sign certain documents, which I signed and provided to him. These documents contained information that was not accurate.
Ward is one of the most prominent New York antiques dealers to be implicated in the recent wave of investigations.
In a 1997 New York Times history Of the popularity of collecting antiques, Ward said, “Maybe it’s fashionable to have antiques. But fashion does not lead to a serious collection. Passion yes.
At that year’s International Fine Art and Antiques Show, Ward reported nearly selling out his booth to new American and European customers. Among the reported offerings was a Greek marble funerary stele from the 5th century BC. Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
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