Art Traffickers Beware: The Manhattan DA Is Deploying a New Unit to Combat NYC’s Antiquities Crime Wave

The news comes on the heels of several high-profile cases this year.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has formed a dedicated antiquities trafficking unit to deal with the increasing number of illicit antiquities cases in New York City.

The formation of the new department was announced on Friday at a ceremony to mark the return of three ancient statues to Lebanon. The statues—collectively valued at more than $5 million—all originated from the Temple of Eshmun, were stolen during the Lebanese Civil War, and recovered by US authorities in New York this fall.

The district attorney’s office says that the dedicated unit is a logical step given that New York is a major marketplace for art and antiquities—both legitimate and illicit. Vance says that since 2012, his office has been involved in the recovery of several thousand trafficked antiquities collectively valued at more than $150 million.

“My office’s newly formed Antiquities Trafficking Unit is committed to stopping the trade of stolen antiquities from historic sites around the world,” Vance said in a statement.

The unit will work with the US Department of Homeland Security and foreign governments to recover illicitly traded works. It will be led by assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine who led the investigation into looted antiquities from Iraq and has become the driving force behind Vance’s recovery efforts.

Bogdanos will work alongside analysts, paralegals, and detectives to collect information about potential crimes and trafficking networks and return stolen artifacts to their rightful owners.

“The trafficking of cultural property and art is a lucrative criminal enterprise that transnational criminal organizations seek to partake of to make a profit; nonetheless, the cultural significance and worth of these returned treasures is beyond any monetary value,” Angel M. Melendez, the Homeland Security Investigations special agent-in-charge, said in a statement.

The DA’s office has been involved in a number of major busts this year. The objects celebrated in Friday’s repatriation ceremony include a marble torso from the 4th century BCE that had been recovered from a private collector in November; a marble bull’s head that had been on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and another marble torso from the 6th century BCE. The district attorney’s office also confiscated an ancient limestone bas-relief that was on view at the European Fine Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory in October.


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