An Unholy Quartet: Museum Trustees, Antiquity Dealers, Scientific Experts, and Government Agents

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
Tags: Archaeology, ASOR, forgery, griffin, Iran, Oscar White Muscarella
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In September 2013 the US returned a silver griffin to Iran as part of a diplomatic overture connected to Iranian president Rouhani’s appearance at the United Nations. But as retired Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Oscar White Muscarella showed in papers published in 2008 and 2012, the object is a fake and cannot be dated earlier than 1999. With permission of Dr. Muscarella, we are pleased to present an abridged version of his 2012 essay here.

An Unholy Quartet: Museum Trustees, Antiquity Dealers, Scientific Experts, and Government Agents

By: Oscar White Muscarella

I focus on the history of an artifact said by antiquities dealers (its vendors) to have “derived” from Iran. It is a paradigm of Plunder and Forgery Culture and their intertwining activities.

Silver griffin. Photo courtesy Oscar Muscarella.

Silver griffin. Photo courtesy Oscar Muscarella.

The artifact is a hollow silver vessel, formed from several joined units to create a winged, open-mouthed griffin, walking on both clawed and perhaps hoofed feet. Its body is furnished with three large upright funnels, two attached at the sides, the third inserted into the raised (surely uncomfortable) enlarged aperture of the creature’s anus. I have no information about the manufacturing method except for the presence of binding rivets in its legs. From a photograph showing a scale, it appears to be small, with a width of 8 inches/20 cm and a full height of 7 inches/17.5 cm.

The vessel’s owners, the United States Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, now a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, never released a photograph of the griffin to the public. Nevertheless, it was shown casually together with other objects on a television program dealing with plunder.

A photograph was made available publicly for the first time in a brief discussion of mine in a 2008 article on forgeries. Notwithstanding a reverential characterization of it as “the most important representation of a griffin in antiquity”, it is a modern Iranian artifact. For stylistic and technical reasons- the griffin’s head is frozen mute, its eyes stare, the head, wing and leg patterns are awkward and meaningless, and the leg rivets are modern: all attributes unlike any ancient conception- I condemned it as a forgery.

Silver griffin. http://iran.usembassy.gov/griffin.html

Silver griffin.

Fortunately, while in this instance the artifact indeed probably derived from Iran, it was made in a forgery shop; it was not plundered from an ancient, now destroyed site.

The griffin first surfaced in Geneva, Switzerland in 1999, when it was shown to “a prominent New York art collector” who was accurately informed that it derived from Iran. In February 2000 the griffin was imported into the United States by its Geneva vendors, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, brothers and proprietors of Phoenix Ancient Art, a prominent family of antiquity dealers. On “a fraudulent commercial invoice” to United States Customs, they declared that the griffin (in “almost pristine condition”-an accurate description) derived from Syria and dated to ca. 700 BCE.

More than two years later, in 2002, Paula Cussi purchased the griffin in her New York City apartment for $950,000.00. Cussi is a prominent “Mexican billionaire”, who, among other activities, was (and continues to be) a member of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. one of its de facto owners (Museum Directors are hired by the Trustees).

Prior to purchasing this pristine griffin Cussi had requested “assurances as to the object’s authenticity.” The Aboutaams assured her that of course the griffin was ancient, but agreed to employ three “experts” to examine it. They did, and unhesitatingly authenticated in writing that it was ancient.

One was a retired museum conservator, now a free-lance conservator and authenticator. Another was unnamed, described solely as “an expert from Germany”, and the third was described as a Los Angeles metallurgist (whom several individuals believe is the free-lance, highly paid authenticator, known to every antiquity dealer and collector in the world).

Two of the experts cited as cultural parallels the artifacts plundered years earlier (apparently between 1989 and the early 1990s) from the Kalmakarra/Western Cave in western Iran, thereby dating the griffin to ca. the 7th century BCE. All three experts authenticated the griffin as ancient and the sale was consummated in a frisson of pleasure by those who own art - Art being a museum/collector euphemism for plundered artifacts.

In December 2003 the Department of Customs/Homeland Security arrested Hicham Aboutaam in New York City and confiscated the griffin, on the charge that he had filed a false claim by stating that the vessel derived from Syria—when they knew it came from Iran. Under Senator Moynihan’s Protect Plunder law, plundered (or said to have been plundered) artifacts are allowed to enter the United States legally -provided the said-to-be provenance label was not altered, or, as recently decided, that they came from Iran.

Aboutaam pleaded guilty in June 2004, and for his lie to the United States Government, was sentenced in July to “one year’s probation and a criminal fine of $5000.00”: not even a slap on the wrist, but a pat on his pinky. And Cussi got her money back from Aboutaam.

I and another investigator (independently) made telephone calls and sent emails to the government agent involved with the griffin’s confiscation, asking his permission to see it or a photograph. No response ever came. But the agent sent photographs of both the griffin and a related artifact to a prominent European scholar of ancient Iranian languages asking for information regarding their cultural backgrounds. The scholar informed them that both objects were manifest forgeries, modern artifacts.

Did Customs/Homeland Security keep them a secret from the public and scholars because they became aware that they had unintentionally confiscated forgeries, now de facto the property of the United States? Note also that a United States agent asked someone at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to accept the griffin on loan; whether from the United States, Aboutaam, or from the Iranian forger, I also do not know.

Both the circumstances and individuals discussed above are mere samples of the network of social and criminal activities that have existed for many decades and that thrives. Dealers in antiquities, the middlemen in the system, receive from their many agents artifacts from all over the world, all said to be ancient productions. Antiquity dealers (like drug dealers) exist only because both sellers and customers exist (the word customer, however, is never used).

The customers take pleasure in knowing and sharing in the background of the plunder/loot, and the consequent destruction of this planet’s history. Collecting allows them to display their wealth, power, and social positions, and to be described as prominent. Collectors are the beginning, as with drug purchasers, of plunder and forgery.

Consequently, tomb robbers all over the world have steady work year after year; collectors want more and more antiquities, and the collecting population grows steadily. Those with steady work, indeed lifetime jobs, are the forgers of antiquities. Some dealers employ forgers, commissioning them to produce specific artifacts. Other forgers have independent factories; they seek out dealers, or sell directly to smugglers in the same manner as plundered material. Plundered and forged artifacts surface together in dealers’ shops or auction galleries, labeled ancient by vendors. They are also labeled with a ‘said-to-be provenance’ or specific site provenance. Many of the former are supplied with forged letters attesting that a German or Italian noble family owned the artifact since sometime around 1932.

Mohammad Ali Najafi, vice president of Iran and head of the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization holding the silver griffin.

There is a significant bonus for those having the power and legal right to sell and purchase antiquities, a no-loss situation. Dealers convicted of smuggling or lying about a provenance are given suspended sentences, probation, and a small monetary fine. Collectors are not convicted and get their money back. For example, in addition to Aboutaam, two antiquities dealers (Robert Haber and William Veres) were sentenced to one year and ten months imprisonment for lying about the provenance involved in the sale of a gold bowl. The sentence was immediately suspended, and I need not add that the billionaire purchaser was acquitted of any crime, and his money was promptly returned.

The moral of this essay is that archaeologists are on the losing side, because archaeology’s enemies are powerful, and, if truth be told, because few archaeologists are interested in stopping plunder. There is, however, some irony here, and forgeries sold on the antiquities market can make us smile, albeit bitterly: they were not plundered from ancient sites.

Oscar White Muscarella received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 and was a curator and research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until his retirement in 2009. He is the author of The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures (Brill, 2000).

This essay was originally published in Namvarnameh, Papers in Honour of Massoud Azarnoush, edited by Hamid Fahimi and Karim Alizadeh (Tehran, IranNegar Publication, 2012), pp. 185-190.

Check out the links below for more information.

  • ICE “Incompetence” In Iranian Griffin Debacle
  • Iran to make documentary on returned Persian griffin



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1 Comments for : An Unholy Quartet: Museum Trustees, Antiquity Dealers, Scientific Experts, and Government Agents
  1. Pingback: Network analysis project on the “Western Cave Treasure” | altinstitute

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