Swiss Court Finds Prominent Antiquities Dealer Guilty of Using Donated Documents

Swiss Court Finds Prominent Antiquities Dealer Guilty of Using Donated Documents

A prominent antiquities dealer has been found guilty by a Swiss court of illegally bringing a number of artefacts into the country and in some cases using forged documents of origin.

The Geneva Police Tribunal on Jan. 10 gave Ali Aboutaam an 18-month suspended prison sentence and ordered him to pay just over 450,000 Swiss francs, or about $488,000, in legal costs, according to a copy of the ruling reviewed at The Wall Street Journal. The sentence, which includes a three-year probation period, can be appealed.

The conviction followed a plea deal for using false documents to confirm the legal origin of some items in Mr. Aboutaam’s possession and “violations of the law on the transfer of cultural objects,” according to a Geneva police court ruling. .

Mr Aboutaam pleaded guilty to these allegations, according to his defense lawyer, Didier Bottge. “He is very happy with the result,” because he got back most of the artifacts confiscated by the Swiss authorities, Mr. Bottge said.

According to the ruling, 46 objects, including those from Syria and Egypt, would remain in the custody of the Swiss government indefinitely. The Journal could not determine whether the objects would be returned to their country of origin.

Ali Aboutaam is the eldest brother of one of the most famous families in the international antiquities business, which has galleries off Madison Avenue in New York and Geneva. The Journal reported in 2017 that Mr Aboutaam and his brother, Hicham, were under investigation by the Swiss, Belgian and French authorities to see if they handled Syrian and Iraqi items looted under the auspices of the Islamic State extremist group, which also known as ISIS. A lawyer for the family company, Phoenix Ancient Art SA, said in 2017 that “the company has never knowingly bought or sold any looted items, let alone items looted by ISIS.”

Hicham Aboutaam sued Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of the Journal, in New York state court, saying that his business and reputation had been damaged by the article and that neither he nor his brother had bought or sold aware of goods which they were determined to have. looted by terrorist groups. In 2019, a judge threw out Hicham Aboutaam’s case, saying the decision to report on an ongoing law enforcement investigation was a matter of journalistic judgment. In 2020, the highest court in New York refused to accept the appeal of the case. Dow Jones said the article was “thoroughly reported, fair and completely accurate.” Hicham Aboutaam was not charged with wrongdoing in connection with that investigation.

The charges against Ali Aboutaam in the Geneva court were an outgrowth of that investigation in 2017, according to a Swiss official familiar with the case. The Geneva court ruling said Ali Aboutaam relied on false documents to prove the origin of some of the artefacts in his possession. He was also convicted of paying an intermediary between 2012 and 2016 to import antiquities into Switzerland, in violation of Swiss laws on the importation of cultural goods. Hicham Aboutaam was not charged in relation to the Geneva matter.

“Ali Aboutaam knew, or had to accept, that they were found illegally, particularly during illegal excavations in various regions of the Middle East,” said the indictment, which included the charges to which he pleaded guilty .

Mr Bottge, Mr Aboutaam’s lawyer, blamed the “vacuum and sometimes inconsistencies” of national and international regulations on the trade of cultural objects for his client’s “shortcomings”. He said Mr. Aboutaam did not try to “hide a questionable background.”

A 1970 United Nations convention banned the trade of antiquities taken without proper disclosure to the country where they were found. In 2015, amid reports of widespread looting by the Islamic State, the United Nations Security Council banned all trade in Syrian antiquities and reiterated a 1990s ban on the sale of Iraqi artifacts.

In Switzerland, owners of ancient art are required by law to be able to document the legitimate origin of their items.

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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