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Another Columbus letter makes it home

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MayflowerWILMINGTON, Delaware — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigation Philadelphia special agents and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware returned Thursday a more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to the Vatican during a repatriation ceremony at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (the “Vatican Library) in Vatican City. The letter, originally written in 1493, was stolen from the Vatican Library and later sold in 2004 for approximately $875,000. This is the third Christopher Columbus’ letter repatriation in the past two years.

The return marks the second Columbus letter to be returned this months and the third in recent years.

In or around Dec. 1921, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus donated a copy of the Columbus Letter (along with thousands of other rare books and manuscripts) to Pope Benedict XV. The Columbus Letter was preserved in the Vatican Library. After receiving a copy of the Columbus Letter, at no time did the Vatican City State or the Vatican Library relinquish title to this document. In or around 1934, a detailed description of the Vatican Library’s copy of the Columbus Letter was cataloged in the census copies of the standard bibliography of fifteenth-century printing, otherwise known as the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (volume VI, Leipzig, 1934, no. 7177). At an unknown time and date, the Columbus Letter was stolen from the Vatican Library and replaced with a forgery, which was designed to appear like the original letter.

Like the prior recovered letters, the return of the Vatican’s Columbus Letter followed a multi-year joint investigation conducted by HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware. After receiving a tip that the Vatican Library’s letter was stolen and replaced with a forgery, law enforcement determined that the original letter was located in a private art collector’s personal collection in Atlanta, Georgia. The investigation determined that this individual purchased the stolen Columbus Letter in good faith during a February 2004 transaction worth $875,000.

In April of 2017, following negotiations between U.S. Attorney’s Office and representatives for the individual in possession of the letter, the parties agreed to permit a subject matter expert to inspect and compare both the Columbus Letter in Atlanta against a copy of the Columbus Letter in the Vatican Library’s possession. The expert determined that the Columbus Letter located in Atlanta was, in fact, the original Columbus Letter that belonged to the Vatican Library, and that the copy in the Vatican Library’s possession was a forgery. Following this analysis, the person in possession of the Columbus Letter in Atlanta voluntarily agreed to relinquish title and interest in the Columbus Letter.

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Columbus letter returned

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Photo courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

WASHINGTON — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice returned a more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to Spain during an evening repatriation ceremony at the Residence of the Spanish Ambassador to the United States on June 6, 2018.

The letter, originally written in 1493, was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and sold for approximately $1 million.

In March 2013, it was discovered that the Columbus Letter believed to have been stolen from Barcelona was reportedly sold for 900,000 euros in June 2011. Following extensive negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, the individual in possession of the letter volunteered to transfer custody to HSI Special Agents, which was then brought to Wilmington, Delaware in February 2014 for further examination. In March 2014, a subject matter expert evaluated the letter and determined that the document was “beyond all doubt” the original stolen from the National Library of Catalonia.

Additionally, other experts conducted a series of non-invasive digital imaging tests, which determined, among other things, the probable use of a chemical agent to bleach the ink of National Library of Catalonia’s stamp and that the paper fibers of the Catalonia Plannck II Columbus Letter had been disturbed from their original state where the stamps were previously located.

U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss stated, “The recovery of this Plannck II Columbus Letter on behalf of the Spanish government exemplifies not only the significance of federal agency partnerships in these complicated investigations, but the close coordination that exists between American and foreign law enforcement agencies. We are truly honored to return this historically important document back to Spain – its rightful owner. I commend the dogged efforts of HSI special agents and Department of Justice attorneys who are dedicated to the recovery of stolen cultural artifacts from around the world.”

The repatriation marks the second return of a Columbus letter by ICE, the most recent until now taking place in May 2016.

Plea in whale teeth trafficking

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John “Jake” Bell, of Lakeville, Connecticut, pleaded guilty June 6 to illegally trafficking teeth from endangered sperm whales.

Bell pleaded guilty today in Boston to one count of wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act. As part of his plea, Bell admitted that in November 2004, while in the Ukraine, he sold approximately 34 sperm whale teeth to a co-conspirator who resided in Nantucket, Massachusetts, for $11,600. Bell shipped the 34 teeth in multiple boxes from the Ukraine to an associate in Connecticut, from where his co-conspirator retrieved them. Bell’s co-conspirator was convicted in 2010 after a jury trial and sentenced to 33 months in prison.

According to the indictment, Bell acquired the teeth and smuggled them into the United States. Bell, who was an artist and scrimshander, carved some of the teeth he sold, but also sold uncarved teeth to customers. According to papers filed in federal court, between July 2005 and June 2006, Bell smuggled in excess of 49 pounds of sperm whale teeth into the United States, valued in excess of $26,000. Also, according to these filings, between June 2007 and April 2008, Bell sold nine carved teeth to customers in the United States, with a total value of $20,300. 

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act protects sperm whales and prohibits their parts from being sold in interstate or foreign commerce or imported into the United States without a permit.

Artifacts from Hobby Lobby probe returned to Iraq

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ICE returned 3,800 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, to the Republic of Iraq. The artifacts were smuggled into the United States in violation of federal law and shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc, a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer. Contributed photo.

 
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned 3,800 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, to the Republic of Iraq. The artifacts were smuggled into the United States in violation of federal law and shipped to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc, a nationwide arts-and-crafts retailer.

Many of the tablets can be shown to come from the ancient city of Irisagrig. The tablets, primarily from the Ur III and Old Babylonian period (2100-1600 BCE), are mostly legal and administrative documents, but also include an important collection of Early Dynastic incantations and a bilingual religious text from the Neo-Babylonian period. Two clay cones are inscribed with royal inscriptions from the Early Dynastic Lagash II periods (mid-third millennium BCE). The clay bullae include artifacts believed to be of Parthian or Sasanian date (late 2nd cent. BCE – early 7th cent. AD).

“These pieces are very important to us and they should be returned home to Iraq, to the rightful owner of these pieces,” said Ambassador of Iraq to the United States Fareed Yasseen.

The artifacts returned were initially intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The shipping labels on these packages falsely described the cuneiform tablets as tile samples.

“CBP is honored to have played a role, together with ICE, in the return of these national treasures to their rightful owner, the Republic of Iraq. In doing so, we ensure the protection of this priceless cultural heritage and secure a precious, tangible link to the past for future generations,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Ian Saunders.

After a review of the items and their documentation, ICE Homeland Security Investigations Special Agents, in conjunction with Assistant U.S. Attorneys at United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York conducted interviews of a number of Hobby Lobby employees between January and June of 2016 which led to the discovery of a deliberate intent by employees of the company to avoid using a customs broker for the artifacts related to this transaction.

Wednesday’s event was the first repatriation of cultural property to Iraq since March 2015, when ICE returned ancient antiquities and Saddam Hussein-era objects, including the Head of Assyrian King Sargon II, a limestone fragmentary head of Lamassu, the winged bull, from the Palace of Sargon II. ICE has returned more than 1200 items to Iraq in five repatriations since 2008.

Artifacts seized in Interpol operation

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A marble head was among the seizures made during the first joint customs and police operation codenamed Athena organized by the World Customs Organization and INTERPOL, and the Europe-focused Operation Pandora II coordinated by the Spanish Guardia Civil and Europol. courtesy photo

 More than 41,000 objects including coins, furniture, paintings, musical instruments, archaeological pieces and sculptures were seized in a global operation targeting the trafficking of cultural artifacts between October and December 2017.

The seizures were made during the customs and police operation codenamed Athena organized by the World Customs Organization and INTERPOL, and the Europe-focused Operation Pandora II coordinated by the Spanish Guardia Civil and Europol.

It included checks at airports and border crossing points, searches at auction houses, museums and private homes and monitoring of online markets.

In just one investigation in Spain, the Guardia Civil seized more than 2,000 cultural objects, the majority of which were coins from the Roman and other Empires.

Officials also seized 88 pieces of ivory as well as weapons including swords, a crossbow and 39 historical firearms ranging from rifles to pistols.

Other highlights:

· Argentinean Federal Police recovered the shell of a Glyptodon, an extinct mammal. The shell, estimated to be more than one million years old, was on sale for $150,000.

· Brazilian Customs seized a marble head hidden in a passenger’s suitcase. Verification of the piece’s provenance is ongoing.

· A painting by Nicolas de Staël worth approximately € 500,000 was intercepted by French Customs at the Gare du Nord in Paris as it was being smuggled to London.

· Searches of a businessman’s two homes and two commercial properties by Greek Police resulted in the recovery of 41 archaeological objects which did not have the necessary license. 

Tens of thousands of checks were carried out at airports and border crossing points across 81 countries. Auction houses, museums and private houses were also searched, resulting in more than 300 investigations being opened and 101 people arrested. courtesy photo.

Two charged with theft of relic gold bar

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  Two men have been charged in the theft of a gold bar from a Key West, Florida, museum in 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Justice:

The defendants are accused of driving to Key West from West Palm Beach on or about August 18, 2010, and entering the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. It is alleged that Jared Alexander Goldman, 32, of Palm Beach Gardens stood guard as a lookout to enable Richard Steven Johnson, 41, of Rio Linda, Calif., to steal the gold bar. Johnson then allegedly removed the gold bar from its display case at the museum and both defendants then drove back to West Palm Beach. The gold bar has not been recovered.

The 75-ounce bar was originally found in 1980 in the wreck of the Spanish galleon Santa Margarita, which sank in 1622. It had been on display in an acrylic case that allowed museum visitors to lift the bar. 

It had been valued at $550,000.

More about the museum can be found here

Jail sentence in timber theft

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courtesy photo

 A Washington state man has Ben sentenced to 30 days in jail for chopping down a big leaf maple on federal land near Olympic National Park. Authorities said 63-year-old Michael Welches and others sold the wood to an instrument maker.

According to the Department of Justice:

On November 11, 2013, a neighbor residing near the Elwha restoration project lands notified the Park Service that he had heard chainsaws in the middle of the night. The neighbor said he saw people in the woods wearing headlamps. The neighbor reported similar activity a few nights later. The ranger investigated in daylight and found a felled big leaf maple. He asked the neighbor to call him directly if he heard or saw additional activity. The next night, at 1:00 AM the neighbor alerted the ranger. Law enforcement responded and arrested WELCHES and two codefendants as they were cutting and loading the felled maple. A receipt indicated the men had sold the wood to a Quilcene, Washington music wood supplier. Wood retrieved from that supplier matched the wood from the felled maple. 

The value of the timber as music wood is estimated to be $8,766.
Welches has a prior conviction from 2004 for cutting in a state timber trust, according to DOJ.

A second defendant, Matthew Hutto, has pleaded guilty is awaiting sentencing, and a third man, Richard Welches, is being sought by law enforcement. 

Cow head and two torsos returned to Lebanon

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  The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office recently sent three sculptures looted from the Temple of Eshmun back to Lebanon The objects had been seized with a court warrant, and the owners surrendered them after learning of their background, according to the DA’s office. The items include:

— Torso E1912: In November, a marble torso, circa the 4th century B.C.E., was recovered from a private owner who acquired it after the statue was excavated in the 1970s from the Temple of Eshmun, an ancient place of worship near Sidon in southwestern Lebanon. The item was subsequently stolen during the Lebanese Civil War and sold by an antiquities dealer before being shipped to New York.

— The Calf Bearer: In October, another marble torso, circa the 6th century B.C.E. and valued at approximately $4.5 million, was recovered from a private owner who acquired the artifact after it too was excavated from the Temple of Eshmun in the 1970s, stolen during the Lebanese Civil War, and sold to private collectors.

— The Bull’s Head: In July, a marble bull’s head, circa 360 B.C.E. and valued at approximately $1.2 million, was recovered from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on loan for display by a private collector who acquired the statue after it was also was excavated from the Temple of Eshmun in the 1960s, transferred to the Byblos Citadel in Jubayl, stolen during the Lebanese Civil War, and sold to private collectors..

Two sentenced for deerknapping

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Caution: Deer onboard

 Two Florida residents have been sentenced for allegedly capturing endangered deer that were found in their vehicle during a traffic stop.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the two took protected Florida Key deer on Big Pine Key in July, 2017.

They used food to lure the three deer to them and then captured the deer. The defendants trussed up the deer and then placed them in their vehicle …
After departing the Big Pine Key area in their car, southbound on the Overseas Highway, the defendants were stopped as a result of a traffic infraction and the three deer found in the vehicle – the adult male in the trunk, and a juvenile male along with a doe, confined in the back seat of the car.

No word on where they were taking the deer. The actions resulted in injury to the adult male Key deer, which suffered a fractured leg and had to be euthanized by authorities, according to DOJ..

Lions and tigers and skulls, oh my

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  A New York has pleaded to buying endangered tiger and lion parts with the help of straw men and shipping the parts abroad.

Arongkron “Paul” Malasukum, of Woodside, pleaded Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, to wildlife trafficking in U.S. District Court for Eastern Texas in Plano.

According to the Department of Justice: 

In papers filed in federal court in April 2016, Malasukum admitted to purchasing a tiger skull from undercover agents who were working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Malasukum also admitted to purchasing lion skulls from an auction house in Texas through the undercover agents on another occasion. The agents were acting as “straw buyers” for Malasukum. Malasukum, who knew his out-of-state purchases could draw attention from federal law enforcement, gave the undercover agents cash and told them which items to bid on and ultimately win. After the purchases, Malasukum shipped the tiger and lion skulls from Texas to his home in Woodside, New York. From New York, Malasukum shipped the skulls to Thailand for sale to a wholesale buyer. 

As part of his plea, Malasukum admitted that between April 9, 2015 and June 29, 2016, he exported approximately 68 packages containing skulls, claws, and parts from endangered and protected species, with a total fair market value in excess of $150,000. All of the exports were sent to Thailand.

Mosaic floor from Caligula’s ship returned to Italy

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  A collection of ancient Roman artifacts that included a mosaic from one of Caligula’s Lake Nemi pleasure ships was repatriated to Italy on Oct. 20, 2017, following a multiagency investigation, which included U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations..

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement:

In September, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized a section of ancient mosaic flooring pursuant to a search warrant and an ongoing joint investigation into the trafficking of stolen antiquities. The marble flooring section, which dates back to 35 A.D., was originally part of an ornate ship commissioned by the Roman emperor Caligula at Lake Nemi. Following the emperor’s assassination, the ship sank and remained underwater for nearly 2,000 years, until it was excavated in the 1920s.

… The recovery was ordered by dictator Benito Mussolini, who had the lake drained …

In 1936, the Ships of Nemi Museum was completed to display the ships and the items excavated from them, including the sections of the inlaid mosaic marble floor. The Museum was later used as a bomb shelter during World War II and many of the original tiles were subsequently destroyed or damaged by fire, rendering the mosaic floor piece one of the only known, intact artifacts of its kind from the Ships of Nemi.

Earlier this year and as part of the same investigation, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized a Paestan red-figure bell-krater, a wide, round wine vessel circa 360-350 B.C., from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as a Campanian red-figure fish-plate, circa 340-320 B.C., from a Christie’s auction.   

All the items were seized pursuant to judicially authorized warrants, but were thereafter forfeited willingly once the owners were presented with the evidence that each had been stolen from Italy.

No word on whether 2,000 years at the bottom of a lake and a World War II bombing cleaned all the Caligula-era party grime from the mosaic floor.

Also, ICE didn’t mention that the mosaic section had been found repurposed into a coffee table.

Coral indictments

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  LOS ANGELES – A federal grand jury has returned three indictments charging three people and two companies with trading live corals protected by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

According to the U.S.Department of Justice:

Renaissance Aquatics, Inc. and Lim Aqua-Nautic Specialist, Inc. – both located in Inglewood – and Chet Bryant, 37, of Houston, were charged with unlawfully importing live, CITES-protected corals from Vietnam and submitting false records to conceal their unlawful activity on seven occasions over a five-month period. According to court documents in this case, the corals were hidden from view in shipments containing other wildlife. The indictment also charges Renaissance and Bryant with conspiracy and attempting to unlawfully export live coral.

Jose Torres, 42, of Gardena, was charged with unlawfully attempting to export to Mexico 20 varieties of live, CITES-protected corals. The indictment also alleges that Torres submitted false records to the USFWS that omitted the corals and understated the size of the shipment.

Jorge Vazquez, 39, of Garden Grove, was charged with unlawfully attempting to export live, CITES-protected corals. Transportation Security Administration officers found the corals hidden in Pringles potato chip cans during a baggage inspection at Los Angeles International Airport. Vazquez later admitted that he packed the corals into the Pringles cans, then placed the cans in his mother’s luggage for her to transport to Mexico.

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