Arrest warrant issued for collector who spent years helping authorities find looted antiques

A New York criminal court has issued an arrest warrant for Georges Lotfi, a prominent Lebanese collector and antiquities dealer who for years warned authorities of the movement of looted and contraband items. Now he is accused of trading in the same materials.

A former pharmaceutical businessman based in Tripoli (north Lebanon), Lotfi, 81, has been an avid collector for decades and an active dealer in Roman mosaics. He was accused of trafficking “hundreds of coins” allegedly smuggled from war-torn Lebanon, Syria and Libya which he kept at his residences near Beirut and in Tripoli, Manhattan, Paris and Dubai, or in storage in New Jersey, before putting them on the market. Several items were seized by the Art Trafficking Unit (ATU) of the New York District Attorney’s Office, headed by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, as well as by customs officers in France and Lebanon.

Among the revelations contained in the affidavit in support of the arrest warrant, dated August 3, Lotfi allegedly admitted to being the first holder of the $12 million Sidonian marble bull’s head seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. in 2017., a major blow for the ATU. Excavated in 1967 by a French archaeologist at the Lebanese site of Eshmun, the 4th-century BCE bull’s head was stolen by the Phalangist militia during the civil war in 1981 from the fortress of Byblos. In 2010, when loaned to the Met by a private collector, the curator of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities Joan Mertens said in an internal report that the first known owner was “Mr. Lotfi/with Frieda Tchacos in Zurich ( Galerie Nefer)” (the gallery has since closed).

This initial claim about the provenance of the marble bull’s head was initially dismissed by investigators as it had not been clarified or documented, but it now appears – based on Lotfi’s own admission – that he was indeed the ancient holder of the marble head. In an email he wrote to Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Robert Mancene on January 22, 2018, the collector claimed he bought the bull’s head in northern Lebanon in the 1980s with a torso. in marble and, later, a draped male figure from a local dealer by the name of Farid Ziadé. Listed on the market for $10 million, the torso was seized from Lotfi’s Fifth Avenue apartment in 2017 and eventually repatriated to Lebanon along with the bull’s head. The draped figure was recovered a year later by Lebanese customs in a container shipped from New York to Tripoli.

According to Mancene’s affidavit, Lotfi had served as an informant for the ATU, providing “valuable information on numerous antiquities smuggling investigations”, allegedly in the hope of protecting his own business. The investigator also reveals that it was Lotfi who “first contacted ATU with information” about the infamous gold sarcophagus seized from the Met in 2019, leading to an investigation spanning the US, France and Europe. Germany on Egyptian antiquities sold to the Met and Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The affidavit states that in March 2018, Lotfi asked Mancene if “a financial reward” would be possible for information that “could lead to the discovery of false provenance documents” for a “multimillion-dollar object that is found in the United States” – the Golden Sarcophagus, at the time the star attraction of an exhibit at the Met. Lotfi said the reward was not for him but for one of the traffickers, who later got in touch with Bodganos (requests for financial rewards were repeatedly denied).

Mancene also claims that Lotfi sold an Egyptian bronze statuette of a kneeling priest or ruler to the Met, which is believed to have been seized from the museum last February and will be returned to Egypt (the sale having taken place in 2006, case is covered by the statute of limitations).

According to Mancene’s affidavit, Lotfi was also in possession of three Cyrenaic funerary deities seized in 2012 at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, suspected of having been looted in Libya (this case is still pending). The striking effigies were the focus of an exhibition at the Louvre on archaeological looting in 2021. Other statues from Cyrenaica, a heavily looted site during Libya’s civil war, have been spotted on the US market after being photographed in Lotfi’s residence in Manhattan. . One was seized in 2019 from the Brooklyn apartment of Jamal Rifai, owner of the Aphrodite Ancient Art Gallery.

The affidavit also mentions a carved limestone statue from Palmyra showing a reclining male figure surrounded by his wife and three children, shipped from Dubai to New York in 2011, and a series of Roman mosaics from Syria and Lebanon. Twenty-four of these antiques, some sold to Lotfi by the same Farid Ziadé, all using the same alleged “manufactured generic provenance” according to Mancene, were seized in New York in 2021. But the investigator specifies that “several” other mosaics which passed through the hands of Lotfi are still on the market or in the possession of the Met.

Neither Rifai nor Met officials had responded to requests for comment by press time. Lotfi tells The arts journal he “made the mistake of developing a friendship with Bogdanos” and will “very soon” refute the allegations against him, saying the affidavit “altered or misinterpreted certain situations and statements” he had made.