Established New York Dealer Revealed as Antiquities Trafficker in Ongoing U.S. Probe to Identify and Return Stolen Cultural Artifacts
Prosecutors lay out the trail of dozens of works stolen from Greece, Italy, and Turkey.
As U.S. authorities continue their efforts to identify and return looted and stolen cultural property to their countries of origin, the identities of more bad actors and networks of antiquities traffickers are coming to light.
For instance, a recent announcement by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg of the return of 19 antiquities to Italy disclosed charges against veteran New York antiquities dealer Michael Ward, who has operated a gallery on the Upper East Side for nearly four decades.
The criminal charges were flagged by the ARCA (Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art) blog in an October 12 post by Lynda Albertson. “Inside what has come to be a rather boiler plate restitution press release, the [DA’s office] slipped in a nice little Easter Egg when highlighting three of the objects heading back to Italy,” she wrote, highlighting a one-line reference to “Michael L. Ward (b. 1943), the New York city antiquities dealer who managed a series of eponymous ancient art business entities.”
Ward & Co, with a space at 980 Madison Avenue since 1982, is listed as “temporarily closed” and phone calls to the listed number went unanswered. According to the release, Ward helped facilitate the illicit trade of a gilded bronze plaque that dates to between the 1st and 2nd century C.E. Ward was convicted of criminal facilitation in September.
However, the scope of the allegations against Ward, as revealed in court documents, is far broader. It lists 40 objects stolen from Italy, Greece, and Turkey over the years, with reported values ranging from $20,000 for a Bronze right hand from a male statue from Turkey, to $4 million for a Gilded bronze plaque with satyr from Italy.
As ARCA points out, this is not the first time Ward’s business practices have come under scrutiny from authorities. “[T]his is the same fox in the federal government’s chicken coop who was previously appointed by then-President George H. W. Bush in 1992 to serve on the United States Cultural Property Advisory Committee, the U.S. statutory body who is responsible for the domestic implementation of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970.”
Not long after the appointment by President Bush, Ward came under scrutiny because of his attempt to sell 50 pieces of important Mycenaean jewellery, referred to as the Aidonia Treasure. The gold funerary pieces date to the 15th century BCE, and had been stolen in 1978 from a Mycenaean cemetery at Aidonia, near Nemea, in the South of Greece.
Ward was able to evade criminal prosecution due to a December 1993 out-of-court settlement whereby Greece agreed to drop their lawsuit in exchange for his donation of the jewels to the Society for the Preservation of Greek Heritage in Washington, D.C., according to the ARCA. Despite that brush with the law, Ward evidently continued to engage in and profit from buying and selling illicit antiquities “via several networks of suppliers, who one by one, and over many years, were unveiled as corrupt.”
Last month, Ward was charged with criminal facilitation in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor, according to papers filed in New York State Supreme Court. The District Attorney determined that all 40 of the objects listed in the charges were stolen from their respective countries of origin.
The court papers cite the testimony of Homeland Security agent Robert Fromkin, who wrote that a review of bank records recovered by German law-enforcement authorities in July 2022 from bank accounts owned by Eugene Alexander showed that Ward aided him in committing related crimes. Alexander (aka Evgeni Svetoslavov Mutafchiev) is a Bulgarian national who resides in Germany and is one of several antiquities traffickers being actively investigated by the District Attorney’s office.
The material reviewed also indicated to Fromkin that, from 1999 through 2022, Alexander ran a money laundering scheme in which he sold looted antiquities to European and American collectors—including Michael Steinhardt, Richard Beale of Roma Numismatics, and Erdal Dere of Fortuna Galleries, among others—using a series of shell corporations and offshore banks for payments.
After an investigation by the District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Steinhardt reached a “deferred prosecution agreement” and agreed to surrender 180 stolen antiquities valued at almost $70 million.
Beale was also recently convicted, following an investigation by the ATU and HSI, according to the papers. Erdal Dere is currently under indictment in the Southern District of New York.
As part of Alexander’s money-laundering scheme Ward received more than 100 antiquities from Alexander between 2015 and 2019, according to the papers. At least 80 of those were looted antiquities that Alexander shipped to Ward’s New York gallery.
Fromkin wrote that as part of a multinational investigation by the ATU, HSI, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. into Alexander, Ward, and others, German authorities raided Alexander’s apartment in February 2022, which included recovering Alexander’s computers. There they found photographs that looters had sent to Alexander of many of the antiquities in which said objects appeared to be freshly looted and had not yet been cleaned or restored.
“It is well-documented that looters and traffickers often take and maintain photographs of an antiquity in its post-looting state to demonstrate the antiquity’s authenticity to potential buyers,” according to Fromkin’s statement.
Alexander subsequently arranged for their restoration, took digital photographs of the pieces once they were cleaned, and sent the photographs to Ward.
Ward subsequently emailed the post-cleaning photos to the Art Loss Register, which manages a database of stolen art. Some of the documentation was false, such as a September 28, 2017, email with a photograph of an antiquity and an invoice containing certain provenance. “I know that the invoice was false because it stated that the defendant had received the item from a gallery. But the gallery did not even exist in the year that the invoice stated it had been sold to [Ward],” according to Fromkin.
Ward affirmed that he will plead guilty in open court to the charge “with a promised sentence of a conditional discharge for a period of one year…the conditions of which are that he will surrender additional antiquities, if any, that he or [the District Attorney] identifies in his possession that were sold, consigned, or previously possessed by Eugene Alexander.”
Ward will also assist Italy and Germany in their investigation and prosecution of Alexander, according to the court papers. In return, the District Attorney will not pursue any additional charges against Ward. He is also immune from prosecution in Italy.
To be sure, Ward appeared to take only partial responsibility for his actions, writing in his plea agreement: “I began doing business with Eugene Alexander in the late 1990s, and since then I have purchased or taken on consignment from Alexander many antiquities worth many millions of dollars through Ward and Co….In meetings my lawyer and I have had with the prosecutor over the past months, I have been convinced that Mr. Alexander was trading in antiquities that had been illegally removed from their countries and had provided me with provenances for antiquities that were not accurate. I was shocked by the compelling evidence so indicating. I was not previously aware of it…I also have been advised by the prosecution that Mr. Alexander was involved in money laundering. From 2017 to 2019, Mr. Alexander asked me to sign certain documents, which I signed and provided to him. Those documents contained information that was not accurate.”
Ward is among the most high-profile antiquities dealers in New York to be drawn into the recent spate of investigations.
In a 1997 New York Times story about the popularity of collecting antiques, Ward said: ”It may be fashionable to have antiquities. But fashion doesn’t lead to serious collecting. Passion does.’’
At that year’s International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show, Ward reported nearly selling out his booth to new customers both American and European. Among the reported offerings were a fifth-century B.C. Greek marble grave stele for $650,000 that depicted a man walking with a staff, and, for $125,000, a large circa 800 B.C.E. Egyptian bronze of Osiris that was once in the collection of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
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