In a case that will undoubtedly be Topic A at the Apr. 10 cultural-property symposium in New York organized by the collector-friendly Committee for Cultural Policy, Joseph Lewis, a Chesterfield County, VA, collector of Egyptian antiquities (whose objects were displayed at several American museums) recently won dismissal of all federal charges involving alleged antiquities smuggling and money laundering.
Mark Bowes of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports:
After 2½ years of legal wrangling and a seven-figure cost for his defense, a federal judge last month dismissed all charges against Lewis in New York [U.S. District Court, Eastern District]—one year after prosecutors and Lewis’ attorneys agreed to a 12-month “deferred prosecution agreement.”
The agreement required Lewis to forfeit several artifacts he purchased that were seized in the investigation, provide documentation to a U.S. customs agent if he imported any other artifacts during the 12-month period and, finally, to stay out of trouble. The agreement essentially absolved Lewis of any responsibility or liability for the importation of the seized items or their false provenance.
It was perhaps the best deal Lewis could hope for short of full exoneration by a trial jury—which Lewis said would have drained his bank account even more.
Lewis was one of four defendants in this case. The one who got the worst of it, dealer Mousa Khouli of Windsor Antiquities, New York, “received a one-year suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty in April 2012 to smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the U.S. and making a false statement to law enforcement,” according to Bowes’ report—a wrist-slap. [UPDATED here: Khouli’s sentence was more severe than Times-Dispatch reported.]
In my first of several posts on this case, I predicted it “could reverberate through the U.S. museum and collecting communities.” Now it may reverberate in ways I hadn’t foreseen: Lewis’ vindication sets a precedent for fighting and winning against cultural-property prosecutors who rely on insufficient evidence. It may make prosecutors think twice about dicey indictments and it may give some courage to museum officials who have shied away from purchasing or borrowing most antiquities, thinking they’re too hot to handle.
That’s not to say that due diligence should ever be jettisoned. But not all antiquities should be considered off-limits by responsible, prudent collectors and museums.
On the other hand, the legal fees and the loss of objects seized by the feds in a raid on his home make Lewis’ victory a costly one.
In a previous CultureGrrl post, Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which in 2011 had eight objects on loan from Lewis’ collection, said that all of them “were, to the best of our knowledge, purchased by the owner and lent to the VMFA in good faith. These Egyptian antiquities…were borrowed to further our educational mission of teaching museum visitors about the art, history, and culture of ancient Egypt, one of the most important civilizations of the ancient world.”
In today’s article, Nyerges told Bowes he regards Lewis as “a very astute and determined collector. But he is also someone with great scruples and understands the intricacies of ancient materials and works that are legally excavated and imported. He’s very careful to stay clear of things that would be inappropriate.”
In this context, it will be interesting to hear what Marc Wilson may have to say about recent developments in the cultural-property wars. He is scheduled to speak on two of the three panels at the upcoming New York symposium. The long-time director of the Nelson-Atkins Gallery, Kansas City, and a Chinese art expert, Marc may speak more frankly in retirement than current directors might feel free to do.
Will Joseph Lewis put in a cameo appearance?