Following a lengthy, six-year investigation, a court in Geneva, Switzerland found veteran antiquities dealer Ali Aboutaam guilty of illegally bringing artifacts into the country accompanied, in some instances, by forged documents. The decision was handed down on January 10.
Aboutaam was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay roughly $490,000 (CHF450,000) in legal costs, according to reports in and earlier, in . The sentence includes a three-year probation period. The Geneva Police Tribunal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Mr. Aboutaam is adamant about sustaining the antiquities world for future generations, has always favored the cultural value of ancient art by ensuring its preservation so that it can continue to be appreciated by the greatest number of enthusiasts,” said his attorneys Didier Bottge and Romain Stampfli, in a statement shared with Artnet News.
They added: “Within the legal imbroglio of national legislation and international treaties and conventions and their entanglement and inconsistency, [Aboutaam] has not always been able to align himself with the regulations in place, which is why the Geneva authorities opened an investigation against him.”
They continued: “Among the thousands of ancient artifacts examined, only 18 works appear to be documented in a questionable manner, namely below the legal requirements. That is 0.01 percent.”
Aboutaam himself characterized the latest development as “a deal to end a six-year exhausting investigation that resulted in vetting almost 16,000 antiquities for which the value will only go up,” according to an email. “It historically cost us anywhere between between $2,000 and $25,000 to check a provenance with outside consultants, with contacting possible source countries.” He added that he has no plans to appeal the decision.
The Geneva court ruling said he relied on false documents to prove the origin of some of the artifacts he owned. He was also convicted of paying an intermediary in the four years between 2012 and 2016 to import antiquities into Switzerland, in breach of Swiss laws.
According to , the indictment said that Aboutaam “in his capacity as administrator of Phoenix Ancient Art SA, has asked art experts, or has asked employees of Phoenix Ancient Art SA to obtain from art experts: produce and/or sign false invoices; and/or produce or cause others to produce documents indicating source that are contrary to reality, sometimes contained directly in invoices; and/or provide untrue source indications for use by others.”
Aboutaam also said: “The bottom line is that interpretations of paperwork can go either way after an ordeal of six years, but let the record be clear that, unlike with what one has been witnessing elsewhere, not a single piece was proven to have stolen or illegally obtained. On the contrary, the painstaking investigation ended up positively vetting 99.9 percent of the Geneva holdings.”
According to the ruling, 46 objects, including from Syria and Egypt, will remain in the custody of the Swiss government indefinitely. Aboutaam said it’s not known “what the Swiss authorities will do with the forfeited pieces since they have no knowledge as to their countries of origin and the pieces have not been claimed by anyone.”
Ali and his brother Hicham, run Phoenix Ancient Art Gallery in New York and Geneva. Phoenix has repeatedly been subject to police investigations in connection with illicit artifacts over the years. Hicham is not part of the Geneva investigation.