Free Ports Bound to Cultural Property Trafficking Ties

Khamal PattersonUncategorizedLeave a Comment


Conspiracies and beliefs that important things that affect us are being concealed from us are a part of our daily discourse as modern societies. The revelations in the wake of the recently released Panama Papers forced people to consider some unnerving things about how the legal industry can use its vast, liberating knowledge to help powerful people conduct business in secret and leave us bound with the shadows of doubt that we can ever fully know whom or what is being served by our laws.

The art world had to wrestle with some ethics questions when the Panama Papers revealed the person in possession of Seated Man with a Cane (1918), a painting by Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani that has been at the center of fierce restitution litigation. The work was looted by the Nazis. The story of the painting’s journey may be found here.

The Panama Papers showed that the Nahman family, a respected and renowned family of fine art dealers, had control of the work. The Papers confirmed that the family owned the Panama-based International Center for Art Law. The International Art Center owns Seated Man with a Cane (1918). 68-year old David Nahman is the company’s owner now and has been targeted because of his connection to the the work. Read about Mr. Nahman’s position here.

This work is valued at over 25 million dollars. After the Papers exposed Mr. Nahman ‘s ownership of the painting, Swiss prosecutors went forward. Swiss police raided a site on the Geneva free port belonging to an art storage company. The painting was recovered from the Geneva free port and confiscated. Read the story here.

The saga of Seated Man with a Cane (1918) is important not just to observers of developments with fine art but also to those watching the shifting sands of the antiquities trade. Free ports like Geneva are becoming a focus of increasing concern because of their potential for the legitimate concealment of smuggled antiquities and obfuscation of ownership of pieces with questionable provenance.

In its recent report, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that the “free port of Geneva was a haven for an international network of looted antiquities linked to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In 2003, the Swiss Customs discovered 200 stolen ancient Egyptian treasures, including two mummies, in the free port of Geneva.” The incident involving Mr. Nahman and the cached Modigliani painting at the Geneva free port was just one of the latest of what UNESCO deems as “recent embarrassments” proving that art dealers are intimately involved with trafficking cultural property illicitly through free ports.

UNESCO defines free ports as “tax-free warehouses that were initially created to store raw materials and, later, to hold manufactured goods for a short period of time before their transportation, transit and reshipment.” Furthermore, “[t]he ‘free’ aspect of free ports refers to the suspension of Customs duties and taxes . . . [w]hile goods are stored at free ports, owners pay no import taxes or duties until the goods reach their final destination.” Free ports are attractive because they also make it difficult to uncover what is contained in the units and who own the contents.

Mr. Nahman’s interest in the work may not have ever been discovered without the Papers’ release because of the fog of secrecy surrounding free ports. UNESCO found that there is an elevated risk that art dealers would store stolen or otherwise illicit works and antiquities at a free port to be sold on the black market after the “heat has died down.”

Beyond the 2003 and 2016 discoveries, there is more evidence that there is precious cultural patrimony placed in these rows and rows of sun and salt-water faded shipping containers stacked several feet deep and high and stored in free ports. In 2014,  an invaluable cache of Roman and Etruscan antiquities  was ” . . .  found hidden inside 45 crates marked with the name of an offshore company.” This trove had been secreted away in a Geneva depository for 15 years, according to UNESCO.

Visually, the sight of these free port areas would bring to mind the final scene of the classic Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In that memorable scene, the film’s Macguffin, the fabled and powerful Ark of the Covenant, is carted away in a cargo box and deposited in a government warehouse with rows and rows of virtually indistinguishable boxes containing unknown objects, which may or may not have similar world-destroying mythical properties.

Like the boxes stored in Raiders, the content of many of these containers in free ports may never be known to authorities, let alone the public. Also, like the contents of the boxes in Raiders, some of the articles found in raids on free ports have been discovered to  be harmful to ordinary citizens unaware of the danger.

In 2006, Bahamian authorities received a tip from pharmaceutical giant Pfzier about a shipment of counterfeit medicines and raided a pharmacy in Freeport, Bahamas, a free trade zone and free port. The authorities recovered more a cache of medicinal drugs worth $4 million dollars. What was disturbing about the cache seized at the free port was that many of the medicines confiscated were indeed fake.

It is a miracle that these fake drugs were intercepted and did not reach the open market and harm lives. Art at times does more than imitate life. It anticipates it. The brilliant film noir The Third Man (1949) takes place in post-war Vienna and poignantly depicted the devastation that wrought by profiteers and counterfeiters conspiring to flood the market with diluted penicillin. Their callousness caused the most vulnerable in society to suffer in a country still reeling from the tragedies of war.

Whether the profiteers are hawking fake drugs or fake artifacts, the same greed motivates bad actors today. Fakes still wreak all manner of havoc on the market. In 2015, a cache of artifacts under ISIS’s control was recovered before ISIS could sell them to finance their terrorism revealed they were involved with trafficking fakes.

The West has been shown to be a destination country for artifacts from the Levant smuggled by ISIS and other non-state actors in the region. Free ports have been used to cache artifacts from the Levant. UNESCO made a serious charge in its report that Switzerland could be charged with terrorism financing because it permits the storage of stolen and otherwise illicit antiquities from Iraq and Syria at the free port of Geneva. French Finance Minister Michel Sapin attacked free ports more generally as “unregulated links channels for funding terrorism.” Minister Sapin’s remarks before the 2016 G20 summit in China about the subject may be found here.

Professor Francoise Benhamou is a French economist at the forefront of the fight to keep antiquities both authentic and counterfeit from being concealed at free ports for purposes of criminal financing. She made her appeal that this was an issue of concern at a March 2016 UNESCO round table discuss of free ports and the concealment of cultural property. There was a subsequent UNESCO meeting last month right before UNESCO has issued its report setting forth their findings and proposed solutions.

UNESCO proposed that member states put forth effort in regulating free ports and defining their parameters. It believed that preventing the illicit trafficking of cultural property through free ports should be a top priority. As a means to achieve that end it called for member states with free ports to develop awareness campaigns about stolen cultural property. It also called for the training and maintenance of customs or police units responsive to cultural property crimes at these free ports.

Bad actors, whether sophisticated syndicates or loose assortments of schlubs with access to ships, conspire to pervert the principles of free trade among nations and use them to provide cover for plunder or pilfering. They often have professional help or exploit legal loopholes in operating these enterprises. At times, state actors are behind the ball when it comes to prosecuting these ultimately illicit activities because of the economic attractiveness of free ports makes coming down hard on them difficult politically. It is going to take everyone working together to expose them so that illicit cultural property is not cached away at a free port serving as a some rainy day or retirement fund for criminals or terrorists. The harsh sunlight of scrutiny and vigilance can help dry up these slush funds and keep our societies safe, and that is a fact.


Photo: Cityscape of Geneva- Geneva is home to one of the free ports that UNESCO has identified as having permitted the storage of illicit antiquities and other cultural property/ Jean-Gabriel Eynard


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Khamal Patterson

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