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Museum Alert: Egyptian Art Collector Joseph Lewis Charged with Smuggling, Money Laundering

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Under indictment: Egyptian art collector Joseph A. Lewis II

A criminal indictment concerning alleged smuggling of Egyptian antiquities and money laundering, unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, could reverberate through the U.S. museum and collecting communities.

Egyptian art collector Joseph A. Lewis II of Chesterfield County, VA, from whose residence objects were seized on Wednesday, was one of four defendants charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District, with “conspiring to smuggle Egyptian antiquities into the United States and conspiring to launder money in furtherance of smuggling,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s press release. The alleged crimes occurred in 2008 and 2009.

The other defendants are antiquities dealers Mousa Khouli, Salem Alshdaifat and Ayman Ramadan.

“This is a ground breaking case for Homeland Security Investigations,” according to James Hayes Jr., Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), New York. “It is the first time an alleged cultural property network has been dismantled within the United States.”

A glowing 2008 profile of Lewis, titled “You Don’t Know Joe,” discusses the skin-care magnate‘s museum connections:

He and his wife, Sofi, collect Egyptian antiquities, particularly mummy cases, coffin boards, and afterlife statuary like scarabs. (They’ve given or loaned several pieces to Atlanta’s Michael C. Carlos Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.)

I sent queries (more than two hours ago) to both museums. If I learn more, you’ll learn more.

The U.S. Attorney’s above-linked press release provides these details about case:

As alleged in the indictment, from October 2008 through November 2009, Lewis purchased a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a nesting set of three Egyptian sarcophagi, a set of Egyptian funerary boats and Egyptian limestone figures from Khouli, who earlier acquired those items from Alshdaifat and Ramadan.

Each of these antiquities was exported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and smuggled into the United States using a variety of illegal methods intended to avoid detection and scrutiny by U.S. Customs & Border Protection (“Customs”). Specifically, the defendants allegedly made false declarations to Customs concerning the country of origin and value of the antiquities, and provided misleading descriptions of the contents on shipping labels and customs paperwork, such as “antiques,” “wood panels” and “wooden painted box.”

Most of the smuggled antiquities have been recovered by law enforcement. The innermost sarcophagus of the nesting set was seized during a search of Khouli’s residence in September 2009. The middle sarcophagus and most of the outer sarcophagus were seized in November 2009, after they arrived via sea cargo at the Port of Newark, New Jersey.

The Greco-Roman sarcophagus, funerary boats and limestone figures were seized during a search of Lewis’s residence on July 13, 2011 [emphasis added]. A civil complaint seeking forfeiture of Egyptian sarcophagi, Iraqi artifacts, cash and other items seized in connection with the government’s investigation was also unsealed this morning in Brooklyn federal court.

If convicted, each of the four defendants faces a maximum jail sentence of 20 years. Khouli and Lewis both pled not guilty and were released on $250,000 bond. Alshdaifat was arraigned yesterday in Detroit, pled “not guilty” and was held in custody. Ramadan is a fugitive, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The 17-page indictment alleges:

Khouli provided Lewis with false provenances which stated that the Egyptian antiquities were part of a collection assembled by Khouli’s father in Israel in the 1960s when, in fact, both Lewis and Khouli knew that Khouli acquired the Egyptian antiquities from other dealers.

The indictment also reveals detailed information about how the objects were allegedly smuggled, such as, “splitting a single antiquity into separate packages that were shipped individually over the course of several weeks to conceal the size and value of the fully-assembled antiquity.”

You can read the entire 17-page indictment here. Kate Taylor‘s NY Times story, which includes comment from Egypt’s antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, is here. The AP story, for which reporter Deepti Hajela sought comment from the defendants’ lawyers, is here. (And thanks to David Gill of the Looting Matters blog for giving me my first heads-up on this story.)

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