New twist to Swiss saga over Aboutam property

According to Le Temps, the Geneva Public Ministry has ordered the escrow to be lifted from nearly 5,000 antiques belonging to art dealer Ali Aboutaam. Almost all of the objects, suspected of illicit provenance, had been seized last year. A further 6,000 objects remain in custody.

The saga began in 2015, when the Public Ministry seized three sarcophagi. The courts have now decided to return two, while the third was the subject of an appeal by Aboutam to the Federal Court. However, he withdrew the appeal after his wife was released from custody after 15 days, having been arrested on suspicion of criminal activity following her removal of artworks from one place of storage to another, the paper reports. The third sarcophagus will now be returned to Turkey.

The authorities suspect Aboutam of holding art looted in Syria and Iraq, charges the dealer has always fiercely denied.

The saga took a bizarre turn in May, when 23 seized objects with a market value of around 4 million Swiss francs were stolen from the custody of the prosecution authorities. They remain at large.

Aboutaam’s lawyer, Didier Bottge, has been highly critical of the authorities for seizing the objects without being able to show illicit provenance. He added that among the seized items were coins whose existence and presence in Switzerland was clearly documented in anticipation of the entry into force of the Law on the Transfer of Cultural Property (LTBC) in 2005.

Despite the objects being inventoried by a bailiff, the public prosecutor has cautioned that this does not prove they are legally held by Aboutam. The prosecutor would not comment on whether the release of the 5,000 items was an admission by the state that they were above suspicion.

The release may, in part, have been prompted by legal action from a Colorado couple whose 18 Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities were among the seized items. They had consigned them to Aboutam for sale. Suing the Swiss government, the couple claimed that, “neither the Federal Office of Culture nor the Federal Customs Administration has invoked an appropriate legal basis for the seizure of their property”, and they claimed compensation of $24 million. Despite this, their possessions are not among the 5,000 released items.

As a postscript, it has emerged that in their eagerness to seize the objects, the authorities also seized a terracotta sculpture of an animal that they listed as a Mesopotamian object… until it was released a few weeks later, having been identified as the creation of Aboutam’s 11-year-old daughter, labelled “With love, for Daddy”.