Antiquities Coalition founder: ‘This isn’t just about your history being stolen’

Antiquities Coalition founder: ‘This isn’t just about your history being stolen’
The Golden Coffin of Nedjemankh on display at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo, following its repatriation from the US. (AFP)
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Updated 15 July 2023

Antiquities Coalition founder: ‘This isn’t just about your history being stolen’

Antiquities Coalition founder: ‘This isn’t just about your history being stolen’
  • Inside the multi-million-dollar industry of trafficking in ancient artifacts 

LONDON: When Kim Kardashian attended the Met Gala in 2018, little did she know she was about to trigger a global investigation into the illicit trade in antiquities. The image of her next to a gold sarcophagus of the high-ranking Egyptian priest Nedjemankh went viral and soon attracted the attention of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. An investigation into its provenance followed, leading prosecutors to the 2011 Egyptian revolution.  

During the unrest, the sarcophagus had been looted from Minya in Upper Egypt, smuggled to Paris, restored, and eventually sold to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for $4 million.

One of an almost identical pair of ivory carvings known as the Lion of Nimrud, another artifact on the Antiquities Coalition’s most-wanted list. (Supplied)

“The Met purchased the item at a time when there were reports of looting in Egypt after the 2011 revolution,” says Deborah Lehr, the chairman and founder of the Antiquities Coalition. “If they had simply Googled the provenance records, they would have known it was falsified, as the export license was dated 1971 and bore the stamp ‘Arab Republic of Egypt’, which was not the name of the country at that time.”

The coffin was returned to Egypt in February 2019.   

Louvre museum director Jean-Luc Martinez in 2020. (AFP)

The unravelling of the mystery surrounding the gold sarcophagus provoked a global investigation into the trade in stolen antiquities. In May last year, Jean-Luc Martinez, a former president and director of the Louvre in Paris, was charged with complicity in fraud and money laundering. All charges relate to the trafficking of antiquities from Egypt and were upheld by a French appeals court in February. Martinez denies any wrongdoing.   

Among the deals under investigation is the acquisition of a stone stele (slab) depicting the pharaoh Tutankhamun, which was purchased for the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2016. That slab is believed to have been sold to the museum by Lebanese-German gallerist and art dealer, Roben Dib, and French antiquities expert Christophe Kunicki. Both were involved in the sale of the gold sarcophagus to The Met in 2017.  

Deborah Lehr, the chairman and founder of the Antiquities Coalition. (Supplied)

According to Lehr, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but gauging the true scale of the problem is difficult. The Antiquities Trafficking Unit within the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which was established in 2017, estimates that the total value of its seizures to date is over $375 million. Those seizures include 180 relics surrendered by the billionaire hedge fund tycoon Michael Steinhardt in 2021, valued at $70 million, which included artifacts stolen from Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. Steinhardt had also previously owned a bull’s head from the Phoenician temple of Eshmun in Saida, which had been snatched from a facility in Byblos during the Lebanese Civil War. The head ended up at The Met and was repatriated to Lebanon despite legal challenges from its owners, Lynda and William Bierewaltes, in 2017.   

“That’s just one market,” says Lehr, who is also the CEO of Edelman Global Advisory and vice chairman of the Paulson Institute. “For many years, it was viewed as a victimless crime by the big galleries, a lot of the auction houses, and the dealers. It was viewed as, ‘Nobody will notice, and if they do it’s just the price of doing business to return it.’” 

An alabaster stone inscription from the Temple of Awwam in Yemen, one of the AC’s ‘most wanted’ items. (Supplied)

 The opposite is, in fact, true. Not only does the theft of antiquities rob communities of future economic opportunity around archaeological sites, it helps to fund entities such as Daesh. “They had a ministry of extraction,” explains Lehr. “One division was focused on oil and one division was focused on antiquities because they realized it was a very profitable business. They even had their own auction house.” It is because of its impact on national economies and global security that the Antiquities Coalition says a whole-of-government approach, as well as international cooperation, is necessary to combat cultural racketeering.  

“Nobody listens to the minister of antiquities,” says Lehr. “They’re the weakest in the system. So if you want to address anything, it’s got to go to the ministry of foreign affairs, to defense or finance. You’ve got to get it onto their radar. Once it’s there, it gives us a chance to start to put the legal structures in place and to raise awareness. And we found as soon as we could talk to those people and show them that this isn’t just about your history being stolen, this is about economic opportunity, this is about some of the unrest that you’re seeing, then we got their attention. Then we started working with them and changing the legal structure, so at least if a crime is committed, they can address it.” 

France’s Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak. (AFP)

Previously a negotiator for the US government on intellectual property rights with China, Lehr’s interest in the illicit trade in antiquities was piqued by its blending of history and foreign policy. It was while working as a negotiator that she and her team began to painstakingly break down smuggling patterns. They found that the networks often began with local organized crime gangs working from lists supplied by dealers who, in turn, collaborated with academics, who knew what antiquities might be found in a particular area. 

“They’re smuggled out, so you have professional smugglers who one day will be smuggling drugs, one day women, one day cigarettes, and one day antiquities,” says Lehr. “That process is often very similar and then it gets specialized at the middleman.” Middlemen such as Douglas Latchford, a British art dealer who was accused of trafficking looted Cambodian relics and falsifying documents in 2019. Although charges of wire fraud, smuggling and conspiracy were brought against him in New York, they were dismissed following his death in 2020. In June this year, Latchford’s daughter agreed to forfeit $12 million derived from the sale of stolen antiquities. She had previously returned 125 statues and gold relics to Cambodia. 

“We’re not opposed to the antiquities trade, we’re just opposed to the trade in illegitimate items,” says Lehr, who formed the Antiquities Coalition in 2011 as an NGO dedicated to safeguarding the world’s heritage from cultural racketeering. “And it’s very hard sometimes to tell the difference. So we’re trying to work with institutions to encourage certain practices, including for auction houses, dealers and museums to have rigorous provenance research units.” In the wake of the scandal surrounding the Louvre, France’s Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, announced the formation of a commission to look into the legal framework and procedures relating to the acquisition of works. In May, The Met announced it was to hire a team dedicated to provenance research.  

Lehr is also hoping that stronger penalties will be implemented for those found guilty of cultural racketeering. In the case of the Hobby Lobby scandal, in which representatives of the US-based arts and craft retailer knowingly falsified records for the import of Iraqi artefacts, a $3 million settlement was agreed upon. In contrast, Steinhardt, who is 82, simply agreed to a lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities.  

“We are hoping that we will see some prison time in the near future because that is really what you have to have as a deterrent,” Lehr says. 

Two antiquities from the region on the coalition’s ‘Most Wanted’ list are the Lion of Nimrud, which was looted from the Iraqi national museum in 2003, and an alabaster stone inscription from the Temple of Awwam in Yemen. The coalition is also working with governments across the Arab world to bring about meaningful change. It pushed for the 2016 signing of a memorandum of understanding between the US and Egypt, which restricted the import of certain archaeological relics, and works with the ministries of culture in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to raise awareness — AlUla is, after all, one of the world’s largest archaeological sites, and Dubai has (historically at least) been a transshipment point for the trade in illegal antiquities. Saudi Arabia is also seeking to play a leadership role in the fight against cultural racketeering and in the development and training of Arab archaeologists.  

“Even though I don’t think Saudi Arabia or the UAE consider that they have a looting issue, they do have heritage to protect and being leaders on this issue is so important,” says Lehr. “The steps that they take around their collecting, and how they’re handling the excavations, is so important in setting an example, not just in the region, but globally.” 

Sofia Carson shows off Elie Saab gown on the red carpet

Sofia Carson shows off Elie Saab gown on the red carpet
Updated 10 sec ago

Sofia Carson shows off Elie Saab gown on the red carpet

Sofia Carson shows off Elie Saab gown on the red carpet

DUBAI: US actress Sofia Carson showed off a gown by Lebanese designer Elie Saab at the closing ceremony of the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival.

The star, who has showed off Lebanese labels on multiple red carpets in the past, opted for an olive-toned ensemble from the designer’s Spring/ Summer 2024 couture collection.


A post shared by ELIE SAAB (@eliesaabworld)

Styled by Erin Walsh, Carson posed for photos on the red carpet in the look that featured a draped skirt and embellishments on the neckline.

The latest red carpet appearance proves Carson is something of a fan of Lebanon’s couturiers — In 2022 the “Purple Hearts” actress was spotted in New York wearing an ensemble by Zuhair Murad. Carson attended the Global Citizen Festival in a coordinating look from Murad’s Resort 2023 collection. The outfit featured an embellished crop top and mini skirt set with matching thigh-high leather boots.

In late 2023, the actress cut an elegant figure in a Zuhair Murad gown at the second annual Cam for a Cause event in memory of her former co-star Cameron Boyce, who died at the age of 20 due to an epileptic seizure.

Fast forward to 2024 and the now-concluded Cannes Film Festival has played host to a number of Arab-created looks.

Saudi designer Eman Al-Ajlan dressed Leomie Anderson. (Getty Images)

Saudi designer Eman Al-Ajlan dressed British model and TV presenter Leomie Anderson in a structured look featuring a mini dress with a net-like skirt fitted underneath at the 2024 amfAR Gala in Cannes.

A few celebrities opted for gowns by Murad at the same event, including German model Toni Garrn, sports commentator Alex Scott and Brazilian model Thayna Soares.

Meanwhile, German model Kim Dammer dazzled on the red carpet in a glamorous halter-neck black gown, intricately embroidered with geometric shapes by Lebanese couturier Rami Kadi. Lebanese designer Nicolas Jebran was championed by Turkish actress Hande Ercel, who wore a black gown adorned with red and blue beads.

Egyptian actress Yasmine Sabri was also in attendance, wearing a sparkling silver dress by Lebanese designer Jean Pierre Khoury. The dress featured thousands of mirrored tube beads hand-sewn onto a corseted silhouette, according to the fashion house.

British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation

British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation
Updated 25 May 2024

British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation

British-Pakistani opera singer receives royal honor for recording national anthem post-coronation
  • Saira Peter says she is privileged to contribute her voice to British government’s public events, citizenship ceremonies
  • She also recorded ‘God Save the Queen’ in 2018 and received acknowledgement and gratitude of Queen Elizabeth II

ISLAMABAD: A British-Pakistani Sufi Opera singer, Saira Peter, announced in a video message circulated on Saturday she received a letter of appreciation from Buckingham Palace for recording the British national anthem, “God Save the King,” following the coronation of King Charles III.
The British king’s coronation took place last May at Westminster Abbey in London. The event brought leaders and high-profile personalities from around the world and marked his official accession to the throne after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022.
Upon receiving the recording, performed in the soprano vocal range, the highest of the female voice types in classical singing, the king sent Peter a letter conveying his good wishes and sincere thanks for her public services.
She also received a signed photo card from him and Queen Camilla.
“I want to share with all my followers how excited I am to receive a letter and card of appreciation and gratitude from His Majesty King Charles the Third,” Peter said in the video, where she mentioned she was Pakistan’s first opera singer. “This arrived in response to my civic service of recording the British national anthem, ‘God Save the King.’”
“Being British-Pakistani, I feel so privileged to contribute my skill and voice to the British government’s public events and citizenship ceremonies,” she added.
Peter informed the British national anthem was recorded at the request of UK Government offices at Hastings Town Hall in East Sussex. The recording is now used across her adopted country for official government events.
Previously, she recorded “God Save the Queen” in 2018, making her the first Asian and the only Pakistani officially invited to undertake the task. Peter also received acknowledgment and gratitude from the late queen.
Born in Karachi, the opera singer told Arab News during her visit to Pakistan last year she used to sing in church choirs and began her Western classical journey, learning from Paul Knight, a disciple of Benjamin Britten, in London in the early 2000s after her family moved there.
Peter’s father, Zafar Francis, pioneered the Noor Jehan Arts Center in London, which was opened by British superstar Sir Cliff Richard in 1998.
She is the director of the performing arts center and teaches both Western and Pakistani classical music there.
She said her work in Britain was projecting “a positive image of Pakistan.”

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott
Updated 25 May 2024

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott
  • Speakers, performers pull out from scheduled appearances in protest over Baillie Gifford sponsorship
  • Boycott organizer: Hay must shun future sponsorship by companies with links to ‘Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide’

LONDON: The UK’s Hay literary festival has dropped its main sponsor over a boycott criticizing its links to Israel and fossil fuel companies.

Speakers and performers at the festival pulled out from scheduled appearances in protest over investment firm Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, The Guardian reported.

On Friday, the festival said it was canceling its sponsorship deal with the firm.

Singer Charlotte Church and comedian Nish Kumar had earlier pulled out of appearing at the event.

In a statement on her social media channels, Church said she had taken part in the boycott “in solidarity with the people in Palestine and in protest of the artwashing and greenwashing that is apparent in this sponsorship.”

Fossil Free Books, the group that has led the campaign against Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, has demanded that the firm divest from companies “that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide.”

More than 700 writers and publishing professionals have signed a statement by FFB concerning the Hay festival campaign.

Kumar shared the statement online in announcing the cancelation of his appearance.

An FFB organizer said: “Hay festival is right to listen to the concerns of hundreds of book workers who are working to create fossil-free and genocide-free festivals.

“Hay must now develop a fundraising policy that rules out any future sponsorship by companies that invest or profit from the fossil fuel industry, Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide, and any other human rights abuses.”

Hay CEO Julie Finch said the festival’s decision to cancel the sponsorship deal with the firm was taken “in light of claims raised by campaigners and intense pressure on artists to withdraw.”

She added: “Our first priority is to our audience and our artists. Above all else, we must preserve the freedom of our stages and spaces for open debate and discussion, where audiences can hear a range of perspectives.”

Baillie Gifford began its relationship with the festival in 2016 as a principal sponsor. A spokesperson said: “It is regrettable our sponsorship with the festival cannot continue.”

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes
Updated 25 May 2024

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

DUBAI: Saudi film “Norah,” starring actress Maria Bahrawi, this week received the Special Mention accolade, which recognizes films for outstanding achievements, at the 77th Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard awards.

The cast and crew, accompanied by director Tawfik Al-Zaidi, stepped onto the stage to accept the accolade in front of a full house.

The film, shot entirely in AlUla, is set in 1990s Saudi Arabia when conservatism ruled and the professional pursuit of all art, including painting, was frowned upon. Besides Bahrawi, the movie also stars Yaqoub Al-Farhan and Abdullah Al-Satian. It follows the story of Norah and failed artist Nader as they encourage each other to realize their artistic potential in rural Saudi Arabia.

“Norah” had its official screening at the festival on Thursday, becoming the first film from the Kingdom to screen as part of the official calendar at the event.

The movie was backed by the Red Sea Fund — one of the Red Sea Film Foundation’s programs — and was filmed entirely in AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast and a 40 percent Saudi crew.

Un Certain Regard’s mission is to highlight new trends in cinema and encourage innovative cinematic works.

Chaired by Canadian actor, director, screenwriter and producer Xavier Dolan, the jury included French Senegalese screenwriter and director Maimouna Doucoure, Moroccan director, screenwriter and producer Asmae El Moudir, German-Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, and American film critic, director and writer Todd McCarthy.

Chinese director Guan Hu’s “Black Dog” won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.

Marking Guan’s debut at Cannes, the film follows a former convict who forms an unexpected bond with the titular animal while clearing stray dogs in his remote hometown on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

The jury prize was awarded to “The Story of Souleymane,” directed by Boris Lojkine, marking his return to the festival after a decade since his 2014 feature “Hope.”

The film portrays the journey of a Guinean food delivery man who must create a compelling narrative for his asylum application interview in Lyon within a two-day timeframe.

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh
Updated 25 May 2024

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

RIYADH: Cameras flashed and crowds cheered as Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit the red carpet at Roshn Front’s VOX Cinema in Riyadh on Friday night to mark the fourth installment of the “Bad Boys” film franchise.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die” arrives 30 years after Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, played by Smith and Lawrence, respectively, teamed up as the infamous buddy cops.

The latest film, exclusively in cinemas on June 6, shows how the characters have changed over the years.

“Their backs have gotten weaker, and their knees hurt more,” Smith said jokingly.

“Part of what we wanted to do with the franchise is to have the characters grow in an age-appropriate way,” he told Arab News.

“We are trusting that the audience wants to grow with us, wants to go with us, and wants to follow the natural progression of life and what these characters would be going through.”

The film continues to mix action, drama and comedy, but also allows the characters to grow and develop spiritually.

“The core of the movie is about friendship, love, and family,” Smith said.

“And would you ride or die for your partner?” Lawrence added.

The film builds on the success of the third installment, “Bad Boys For Life,” released in 2020, with the directorial duo for the latest production, Bilall Fallah and Adil El-Arbi,  reportedly inspired by video games.

Lawrence said the “top notch” directors were great to work with, and inspired the actors to “come up with magic.”

Smith added: “It’s interesting working with non-American directors; there’s such a different perspective… You know, they were (young) when the first movie came out, so there’s such a reverence for the original films. They’re bringing that energy, but they also want to put their signature on it. Energetically, it was fun to work with them, and also their openness to the spirituality of the film was also refreshing.”

Action films, whether “Mission Impossible” or the more recent “Monkey Man,” have enjoyed a revival in recent years, and both actors believe the genre will always have a place in the industry.

“The physical wars of humanity represent the inner wars that we go through. So, I think human beings are always going to like watching a good visualized external battle that they can relate to,” Smith said.

“We all know internally that life is kind of a series of ordeals. How do you manage these ordeals and put things back together? And I think that this movie is a comedic look at two people trying to be friends, surviving ordeals together, which changes them without life breaking their relationship. It’s like a standard bromance.”

With the film premiere taking place in Saudi Arabia’s capital, both stars expressed their excitement over initiatives underway in the Kingdom.

Smith said: “I performed at Soundstorm and everything is brand new. The energy of 40 and 50-year-old people in Saudi is like the energy of 20 and 30-year-old people in America.

“It’s like there is this powerful sense of being on the cusp of the future. It’s showing up in music, it’s showing up in art, it’s showing up in architecture, and hopefully shows up at the cinema tonight.”