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U.S. seeks looted Syrian artifacts

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Gold ring with carved gemstone. This ring is believed to be from the Hellenistic/Roman period, dating approximately from 330 BC to 400 AD, and to have come from Deir Ezzor, Syria, which is near where the raid against Abu Sayyaf occurred. Finger not included. Photo courtesy of Abu Sayyaf’s raided archives.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was on the lookout for four artifacts it believes were looted from for Syria and sold to benefit war chests belonging to ISIS (also known as ISIL and De’esh).

The forfeiture complaint spells out how authorities traced the items thanks to the records of Abu Sayyaf, the late ISIS antiquities minister who was in charge of taxing and permitting looters who were taking advantage of chaos in the war-torn country to dig up ancient artifacts for profit.

The complaint goes on to describe how one of Sayyaf’s underlings even kidnapped the 16-year-old son of one of the antiquities merchants at gunpoint. This came following a dispute over tariffs on relics and gold that had been dug out of the ground with pick axes. In the end, Sayyaf was ordered to apologize to the boy’s family, and the underling was directed to go to shari’al law and military course.

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Stolen Art Wednesday: Dracula’s Ring

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This week’s stolen art feature is coming early because we have a special Halloween treat.

You can’t get more Halloween than Dracula, so it was quite a surprise when we found Dracula’s signet ring listed on the FBI’s stolen art database. The FBI didn’t have a lot of details, so our research department had to do some digging to see how a ring from the 15th Century Romania wound up on the bureau’s hot list.

First some background. The vampire we know as Dracula from the novel and movies was based on Vlad III, also known as Vlad the Impaler, a real-life prince from the Wallachia region of what is now Romania. In the 1400s, the area was ground zero for Europe’s struggle with the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III was the son of Vlad II of the Order of the Dragon (Dracul), a group sworn to protect Christians. Vlad II became a pawn in the conflict, and his dad handed him and his brother off to the Ottoman sultan in exchange for support of his reign (so much for that oath to the order). What followed next was a series of backstabbing, shifting alliances and purges that ended with Vlad III on the throne and people he disliked — Saxon settlers, Turkish goon squads — at the top of pointy sticks. After being deposed twice, he was eventually assassinated, and his grave site remains a mystery (rumor has it his head was sent to Constantinople, and what was supposed to be his grave yielded only horse bones).

So, about the ring.

Fast forward some 500 years to the 1950s when an art historian named Vlaicu Ionescu, a Romanian, bought three signet rings (signet rings have raised seals that officials would press into hot wax on important documents to signify their approval) purported to have belonged to royalty from the 14th and 15th Centuries. One of the pieces allegedly belonged to Vlad II, Vlad the Impaler’s father. Ionescu fled the then-Communist regime in the 1970s and wound up in Queens, N.Y.

Then, in August 1989, robbers posing as cops seeking an appraisal handcuffed and beat Ionescu, then age 67, in his apartment and made off with the rings and a painting entitled “Barbadori Holy Family with St. John and St. Elizabeth.” The Barbadori piece is a 1516 painting by Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto.

Although Barbadori is worth $3 million, newspapers keyed in on the Dracula connection. An Associated Press article, which ran in a number of papers, quoted New York detective who seemed doubtful of the Prince of Darkness connection, offering ”That’s like saying ‘We found the true cross up on Forest Hills.” The tabloid World Wide News ran the headline “Thieves make Dracula mad” next to a stock photo of actor Frank Langella as Dracula.

We weren’t able to find any subsequent coverage of the heist apart from the FBI entry. Also elusive is any photo of the signet ring. The FBI listing says it bronze with the hoop made by four cables, a round projection on each shoulder. The bezel has a raven with a cross on its tail which is heraldic coat of arms for Wallachia.

Vital Stats Vlad Dracul Voevod (King) of Valachy signet ring Incident Type : Stolen Crime Category : rings Materials: bronze Period: 15th century Additional Information: ring raven. Vlad Dracul Voevod (King) of Valachy, the historical figure on which the legend of Dracula was made. Bronze, the hoop made by four cables, a round projection on each shoulder. On the bezel a raven with a cross on its tail.

For more information and to report recovered objects in the NSAF, contact:

National Stolen Art File Art Theft Program, Room 3247 Federal Bureau of Investigation 935 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20535