Wanted in the US, Lebanese antiques collector maintains his innocence, says his ‘big mistake’ was trusting New York art crime boss
Lebanese dealer and collector Georges Lotfi, wanted in the United States on allegations of trafficking in looted antiquities, has strongly denied all charges against him. A warrant for the 81-year-old’s arrest was issued in New York last month, accusing the former pharmacist of handling “hundreds of antiques” smuggled from war-torn countries in the Middle East .
In a seven-page press release written in French, documents put online and during an interview with The arts journal, Lotfi disputed the warrant’s claims and provided new information about the spectacular 2019 seizure of a gold sarcophagus from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The golden coffin of the high priest Nedjemank, then sent back to Egypt, had been sold to the museum for 3.5 million euros by the French dealer Christophe Kunicki, charged in Paris with criminal association, gang fraud and money laundering .
On September 7, the New York prosecutor held a ceremony for the return to Egypt of five additional coins that the Met had purchased at auction in Paris, where Kunicki acted as an expert, and a bronze statuette of a kneeling priest, also seized at the museum last February. According to the affidavit of Homeland Security agent Robert Mancene, this 8th-century BC bronze. J.-C. had been sold by Lotfi in 2006, who “had bought it directly from the looter”. The Lebanese collector was also the master builder of the Sidon marble bull’s head seized in 2017 at the Met. The head was stolen in 1981 by Christian militiamen in Byblos during the Lebanese civil war.
In his statement and interview with The arts journal, Lotfi does not deny these agreements or others described in the affidavit. He says he sold the bull’s head, now valued at $20 million, for $3,500 to Frieda Tchacos, who ran the Zurich-based Nefer Gallery, and the bronze statuette for $20,000 through a Jerusalem merchant named Gil Chaya, owner of Biblical Antiquities, who provided “proper export documentation from Israel to the United States”. However, he claims to have “acquired” the works in his famous collection from “approved dealers”, checking their records with the Art Loss Register, and has “always acted in accordance with international and Lebanese laws”. Lebanese law, he says, “protects the right of individual collectors, including the right to own listed antiquities, under the supervision of curators.” A 2016 law, reaffirmed last April, “exempts private collectors from proving the origin and acquisition of their antiquities,” he says, asserting that possession of his collection “has been approved by the Museum of Beirut, the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and Internal Security”.
Lotfi says he moved part of his collection in the 1980s from Lebanon to the Geneva freeport, then to Paris and New York, to protect it from civil war, always obtaining the proper customs documents for each move. He says he gave investigators in New York the key to two storage units in New Jersey where he kept Eastern Roman antiquities that he was willing to loan to American museums before sending them back to his home country. origin. “As a result,” he says, “in 2021, [authorities] seized 23 mosaics and an engraved stone from Palmyra” which were allegedly looted in Lebanon and Syria. “I now demand their return to Lebanon.
“My big mistake was that I befriended Matthew Bogdanos,” says Lotfi, referring to the head of the New York District Attorney’s office’s art trafficking unit, “who turned around against me. And I blame myself for having recognized the golden sarcophagus, when it became the center of an exhibition at the Metropolitan, and alerted Bogdanos. I knew the piece because it had been offered to me some time ago. time, for $50,000 in Dubai, along with two other sarcophagi. I declined the offer because I understood the provenance to be questionable. According to Lotfi at the time, the mummy, which later disappeared, “was still in the coffin”.
Lotfi claims that after the Met exhibition opened, the supplier of the sarcophagus contacted him “because he was in financial difficulty and he was hoping for a reward. I put him in touch with Bogdanos, not asking anything for me, but because I am against looting, which destroys archaeological sites. Bogdanos asked him to go to the United States. He did not consent to this, but gave her all the original information and photos, which allowed the court to seize the coffin. And he never received any money. Lotfi claims that the smuggler in question was a Jordanian citizen named Muhammad Jaradat, alias Abu Said, who died in Amman hospital last May after a long illness.
Among other artifacts discussed in his statement and interview, Lotfi acknowledged having acquired in the 1960s the so-called “Ktisis Mosaic“, which he says he sold “at a very low price” to the famous collector George Ortiz. It was acquired by the Metropolitan in the late 1990s.
In his affidavit, Special Agent Mancene noted that some of Lotfi’s properties were still on the market, including “ceramics for sale on Ancient Art International, a Florida-based business owned by Richard Brockway.” Brockway confirmed to The arts journal that he had “taken some mosaics on consignment” from Lotfi. Brockway now intends to return them to Lotfi, adding that “he provided good provenance from the paper.”