Stolen sword spotted online
Auction site withdraws antique that may have been looted from Baghdad
By Charlotte Burns. Market, Issue 222, March 2011
Published online: 07 March 2011
ATLANTA. A bronze, possibly Shang Dynasty, sword “acquired by the US military during a tour of Iraq from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces”, was briefly offered for sale by online auctioneer Gallery 63 last month, before the US government intervened.
“I posted it on my website on Thursday night and by Friday I was on the phone with multitudinous branches of the federal government. Big Brother is watching you!” said auctioneer Paul Brown, who also hosts the weekly TV programme Auction Kings on the Discovery channel.
In fact, it was former FBI agent Robert Wittman who spotted the sword. “We turned the matter over to Homeland Security, and were able to advise them of the fact it is illegal to sell this kind of material,” said Wittman, who now runs private consultancy Robert Wittman Inc, which specialises in recovering lost or stolen art.
Brown said the sword came to him after a telephone call. “The consignor said he was given it as a gift. Suffice to say, the government was certainly interested in its origin,” he said. Following the conversation with the government, Brown immediately withdrew the lot.
A spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the object is “part of an ongoing investigation” but declined to comment further.
It is not clear whether the sword is a genuine Shang Dynasty piece, but Wittman says that is not the issue. “The government is getting it authenticated,” he said, “but it doesn’t have to be 4,000 years old. The fact is, you can’t steal from people’s homes in other countries. If the piece was illegally imported, it will be returned to Iraq.”
There was widespread looting after the fall of Baghdad and it is still going on, according to Wittman. “If we let our guard down then things will go into the collector market—but we will find them, one way or another.”
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