Pictured: “Castor and Pollux”
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., announced today the return of 12 antiquities, collectively valued at more than $9 million, to the people of Lebanon. Nine of the objects were recovered pursuant to an ongoing criminal investigation into Georges LOTFI, a prolific antiquities trafficker who is the subject of an international arrest warrant. The 12 items were returned during a repatriation ceremony attended by Lebanon’s Consul General in New York, Ambassador Abir Taha Audi, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Thomas Acocella.
“These pieces sat in apartments, storage units and museums when they should have been in Lebanon. As we have demonstrated time and time again, there is no trafficking scheme or network too complex for our Office. Stolen antiquities that come through Manhattan will be repatriated to their home country,” said District Attorney Bragg.
“Returning these stolen antiquities, some dating back nearly 2,000 years, is a privilege as it reunites the people of Lebanon with a piece of their rich heritage,” said Ivan J. Arvelo, Special Agent in Charge for HSI New York. “HSI New York remains committed to collaborating with our partners at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in the investigation and repatriation of historical artifacts which have long been pillaged from their rightful homes.”
“This is Lebanon, the real Lebanon, the real face of Lebanon which we want the whole world to see: the Lebanon of art, beauty, culture, history, the Lebanon of peace and harmony between civilizations and cultures, the eternal Lebanon which will never die,” said Ambassador Abir Taha Audi, Lebanon’s Consul General in New York.
According to documents filed in court, nine mosaics included in today’s ceremony are among dozens of Middle Eastern and North African antiquities that allegedly were trafficked into New York by Georges LOTFI, a Lebanese pharmacist turned antiquities trafficker. In August 2022, the D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (“ATU”) obtained a warrant for LOTFI’s arrest on multiple charges of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property and applied for a Red Notice from the International Criminal Police Organization (“INTERPOL”), which was issued in June 2023. Since 2017, the ATU has recovered 28 antiquities collectively valued at over $33 million that had been trafficked by LOTFI.
Pictured: Mosaic of the Athlete “Dionysis”
Other objects in today’s ceremony were allegedly trafficked into New York by the prominent smugglers Giovanni Franco Becchina, Robin Symes, and Jerome Eisenberg. In March of this year, the ATU seized 16 Symes-trafficked antiquities from a NYC storage facility, where Symes had hidden them in the 1990s and where they had moldered ever since. To date the ATU’s investigation into Symes has resulted in 14 seizures and recovered 56 antiquities collectively valued at nearly $26 million. In addition, the ATU has made 24 seizures of antiquities allegedly trafficked by Italian trafficker Giovanni Franco Becchina, recovering over 100 antiquities collectively valued at over $10 million. The ATU’s investigation into the New York-based dealer Jerome Eisenberg, who owned and operated the now shuttered Royal-Athena Galleries, has resulted in 20 seizures of 126 antiquities worth almost $3 million.
According to the ATU’s investigation, the items returned today include:
- Castor and Pollux: carved from white marble in the fourth century C.E., these extraordinary statuettes represent the divine twins Castor and Pollux with their horses. Looted from the site of Aabbassiyeh in southern Lebanon, the statuettes passed through a number of prolific antiquities traffickers and dealers, including Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, and George Ortiz, before arriving on long-term loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. They were seized by the Office in July 2022.
- Bronze Statuette of a Worshipper: this Roman statuette of a nude athlete making a liquid offering (“libation”) was cast in the first century C.E. in a style reminiscent of Polykleitos, the famed Greek sculptor of four centuries earlier. The piece was found in a wall in the ancient city of Baalbek and smuggled out of Lebanon before appearing on the international art market in 1983 in the possession of the Geneva-based dealer-collector Jean Luc Chalmin. It was then purchased by Leon Levy and Shelby White. The Office seized the statuette in February 2023 from the Metropolitan Museum, where it was on loan from Shelby White.
- Mosaic of the Athlete “Dionysis”: this section of mosaic flooring—originally part of a much larger composition—was created using hundreds of tiny blocks of colored stone, known as tesserae. The Office seized this mosaic along with 22 other allegedly stolen Lebanese and Syrian mosaics in July 2021 from a storage unit owned by Lotfi. At one point this mosaic hung on the wall of Lotfi’s New York apartment.
During District Attorney Bragg’s tenure, the ATU has recovered nearly 850 antiquities stolen from 27 countries and valued at more than $190 million. Since its creation, the ATU has recovered more than 4,500 antiquities stolen from 30 countries and valued at more than $410 million.
Under District Attorney Bragg, the ATU has conducted 36 ceremonies, repatriating more than 1,000 antiquities stolen from 19 countries and valued at more than $190 million. Since its creation, the ATU has repatriated more than 2,500 antiquities to 25 countries and valued at more than $260 million.
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel, supervised these investigations, which was conducted by Assistant District Attorneys Taylor Holland and Bradley Barbour; Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer, Investigative Analysts Daniel Healey and Mallory O’Donoghue; and Special Agent Robert Mancene of Homeland Security Investigations.
The District Attorney’s Office recognizes Ambassador Abir Taha Audi for her exemplary partnership. We also recognize C. Brian Rose, Amr Al-Azm, and Isber Sabrine for their expertise and assistance throughout these complex investigations, as well as Shelby White for her cooperation with our investigation.
 The charges referenced within are merely allegations, and the individuals are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. All factual recitations are derived from documents filed in court and statements made on the record in court.