Art law News Libya

Interpol targets Qaddafi family treasures

Art high on the list of items sought by new Libyan government

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi showed off his his painting, The sun of the oasis at an exhibition in Moscow in 2010 Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

The UK government has confirmed that art is likely to be among the items seized as part of a drive to recover billions of dollars worth of assets siphoned off by the Qaddafi family during four decades in power. A number of initiatives have recently been launched aimed at recovering stolen assets and returning them to Libya. Following a meeting in March between the Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan and Ronald Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, a joint task force has been established to track down Muammar Qaddafi’s fortune, which “could include money, gold or art”, says a spokeswoman for Interpol.

The Stolen Asset Recovery (Star) initiative, which is jointly managed by the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, also met with members of the Libyan government in March to assess how best to recover funds. Meanwhile, the British government formed the Arab Spring asset recovery task force in December. Its aim is to speed up the repatriation of Libyan assets, including works of art.

Qaddafi is thought to have deposited around $168bn in assets abroad—around $100m in the UK alone—which were frozen by the United Nations Security Council shortly after Qaddafi began a crackdown on anti-government protesters in February 2011. While openly held bank accounts and sovereign wealth funds are more easily located, large sums are also likely to have been hidden in secret accounts, deposit boxes and art collections. “Art was probably bought through other organisations not affiliated with the regime or through investment groups,” says Ghazi Gheblawi, a spokesman for the Libyan embassy in London. “It is something that should be investigated.”

Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi’s second son, who is in custody charged with crimes against humanity, was known to be a keen art collector and reportedly active on the Islamic art circuit. He was due to open a museum of Islamic art in Tripoli in September 2011, but its construction was halted by the uprising. Exhibits destined for the museum had already been bought from London auction houses. “A [criminal] case has been brought against Saif… but his financial dealings will also be scrutinised. Part of that might reveal if there’s an element of corruption that might tie him to his assets abroad,” Gheblawi says.

Last year, the Libyan state seized a London mansion worth more than £10m from Saadi Qaddafi, the third of the late dictator’s sons. It was the first case of a major asset owned by the Qaddafi family being transferred to Libyan ownership. Saadi had owned the north London property through Capitana Seas Ltd, a British Virgin Islands company, but ownership was not established until the British Treasury intervened. According to Mohamed Shaban, the lawyer hired by the Libyan Embassy to handle the case, no art was seized last year, but “any valuable works of art that can be linked to Libya will be pursued if I am made aware of their existence”.

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