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No place like home, slippers recovered

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Dawn Wallace, a conservator for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, analyzes one of the recovered slippers at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Lab in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian photo)

 from the FBI:

A pair of ruby slippers featured in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2005, was seized in a sting operation conducted in Minneapolis earlier this summer.
While the FBI has identified suspects and has executed multiple search warrants in Minnesota and Florida in connection with the investigation, investigators are seeking the public’s help to identify all parties associated with the initial theft and the more recent scheme to defraud and extort the Markel Corporation, the owner of the slippers.

The ruby slippers are one of several pairs used in the production of the movie classic. Only four pairs of the shoes used in the film are known to remain and are widely viewed as among the most recognizable memorabilia in American film history. Current estimates value the slippers in the millions of dollars should they be sold at auction.

The recovered slippers, known as the “traveling pair,” were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in the overnight hours of August 27-28, 2005. Despite an investigation by local authorities, which included countless interviews, numerous theories, and even searches of abandoned iron ore pits, the slippers were never located and no arrests were made. The investigation remained a priority for the Grand Rapids Police Department, who requested FBI assistance in 2017 when the extortion plot against the Markel Corporation surfaced. Agents from the Minneapolis Division worked closely with the FBI’s Art Crime Team throughout the investigation, which is ongoing.

After the recovery in July, the FBI transported the slippers to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where conservators were able to conduct an in-depth examination and analysis, including evidence of wear and details unique to their use in the 1939 film. Examination of the recovered shoes showed that their construction, materials, and wear are consistent with the pair in the museum’s collection, which were donated to the museum by an anonymous donor in 1979.

“At the heart of nearly every art crime, we see greed woven into the fabric of the scheme—greed to take it, and greed to profit from its return,” said Sanborn. “Dorothy’s slippers are a treasured piece of Americana, and we are hoping members of the public can help us better fill in the details that will finish the script of this mystery so we can hold accountable all those who were behind the scheme.”

“When the slippers were snatched in the early morning burglary, the thieves not only took the slippers, they took a piece of history that will be forever connected to Grand Rapids and one of our city’s most famous children,” said Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson. “We were confident this day would eventually come, and we are grateful to the FBI and all those who worked to bring this piece of cinematic treasure out of the shadows and into the light. After all,” he said, quoting a famous line from The Wizard of Oz, ‘There’s no place like home.’”

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Govermnent seek forfeiture of “One Ancient Mosaic”

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ancient mosaic depicting Hercules

 
LOS ANGELES – The United States in May filed an asset forfeiture complaint against an ancient mosaic depicting Hercules, believed to have been made in the 3rd or 4th Century, that likely was looted from war-torn Syria, allegedly illegally imported into the United States, and seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security Investigations at a Palmdale residence.

The mosaic, which is approximately 18 feet long and weighs approximately one ton, was seized by FBI and HSI special agents in March 2016 as part of an investigation into the smuggling of looted items believed to be from a foreign conflict area into the United States.

The complaint, which was filed in United States District court under the caption United States v. One Ancient Mosiac, alleges that a Palmdale man smuggled the antiquity into the United States with false and fraudulent documents with the intent to avoid import duties.

The complaint alleges that Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi further violated federal law by concealing the mosaic at his residence.

 After the mosaic was seized, an expert retained by the government concluded that that the artwork “was an authentic mosaic from the Byzantine Period depicting Roman mythology, and was consistent with the iconography of mosaics found in Syria, in particular in and around the city of Idlib, Syria.” The complaint alleges that the mosaic was imported into the United States with paperwork indicating that it was part of a shipment of vases and mosaics worth only about $2,200, but Alcharihi later admitted paying $12,000 for the items. Preliminary estimated values for the mosaic at issue in this case are much higher, according to the complaint..

The United States has adopted import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material from Syria, according to the complaint, which quotes a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection stating: “[f]or decades, the United States has shared the international concern for the need to protect endangered cultural property. 

The appearance in the United States of stolen or illegally exported artifacts from other countries where there has been pillage has, on occasion, strained our foreign and cultural relations. This situation, combined with the concerns of museum, archaeological, and scholarly communities, was recognized by the President and Congress.

Kentucky man sentenced for raiding Native American graves

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  Louisville, Ky. – U.S. District Court judge sentenced Gary Womack, 60, of Woodburn, Kentucky, to 15 months in prison for three felony violations of the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) on June 6, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The case resulted from a three-year undercover investigation by the National Park Service, based upon allegations that Womack possessed human remains which originated from Mammoth Cave National Park. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assisted Park Service agents throughout.
The undercover investigation revealed Womack’s dealings in artifacts removed from the graves of Native Americans buried in caves and rock shelters in South Central Kentucky and also burials from as far away as the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Womack dealt in artifacts from the so-called “G.E. Mound” case prosecuted in the Southern District of Indiana in 1992. 
Artifacts recovered from that case were supposed to have been returned and re-buried at a site in Posey County, Indiana; however, Womack purchased artifacts from the previous prosecution in 2015 in Boonville, Indiana, for approximately $2,500, and transported them to Kentucky, where a portion of them were sold to the undercover federal agent. Womack also pled guilty to two additional counts charging him with trafficking in archaeological resources (Native American artifacts) from the Western United States. All artifacts in the case have been recovered and will be repatriated according to law.
In sentencing, the judge told Womack that he was disturbed that the defendant had chosen to dig the graves of the ancestors of Native Americans for profit and had done so while being fully aware of the laws he had chosen to violate.

A letter from Ben Barnes, Second Chief of the Shawnee Tribe, of Miami, Oklahoma, was made a part of the record and read at the sentencing hearing. The letter states, in part: “The remains that are within the soils of our original homelands contains the hallowed remains of human beings, our ancestors. We would urge the court to send a message to all those what would desecrate a grave, that ARPA violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Bodies of missing hikers found in Alaska

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Copper Center, Alaska – National Park Service rangers recovered the bodies of two hikers who were swept away by a glacial river in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on July 2. According to a Park Service release, identification by NPS law enforcement matches that of two backpackers that were last seen on June 22 when they were dropped off by an air taxi operator at the Sanford Glacier airstrip less than two miles from where the bodies were found.

The backpackers were identified as 62-year old Rochelle Renken and 62-year old Michael Huffman, both from Columbia, Missouri. The couple were experienced backpackers and Renken has been to Alaska several times in the past and had previous experience crossing Alaskan rivers. Positive identification is pending from the State Medical Examiner. The deaths appear to be accidental. No foul play is suspected.

After the hikers failed to make their airstrip pick-up at the Dadina River on June 27 and missed two pre-planned satellite phone calls with the air taxi service, the service notified the NPS. The NPS initiated an intensive aerial and ground search for the couple on June 27. By June 28 there were 27 people and five aircraft involved in the search for the missing couple. Late last week, search crews found footprints along the Sanford River where it emerges from the Sanford Glacier. The footprints were indicative of two people preparing for a river crossing.

Over the weekend search crews found two backpacks and other backpacking gear strewn along a seven mile stretch of the Sanford River downriver from the Sanford Glacier and the location of the footprints. Water levels in the Sanford River receded on Friday and Saturday leaving items stranded in dry channels along the river. Based on the evidence that was found by searchers, it appears that the couple attempted to cross the Sanford River near the toe of the glacier and were swept away by the powerful, glacial river.

The NPS reminds backpackers that river crossings are always dangerous and that rivers and streams that are sometimes passable become impassable, even for experts, after rain events or on sunny days with rapid glacial melt.

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.

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..

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