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US millionaire linked to looted relics

Posted in the database on Wednesday, June 29th, 2005 @ 20:06:23 MST (3908 views)
by David Hebditch and Lawrence Smallman    Al Jazeera  

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James Ferrell's artefact business has made him richer

A top US businessman and an international network of smugglers and academics are making millions of dollars through their illegal dealings in looted Middle Eastern artefacts, according to a leading stolen antiquities activist.

Former self-confessed smuggler and police informant Michel Van Rijn told Aljazeera.net that multi-millionaire James Ferrell, the CEO of America's second largest propane gas company Ferrellgas, is running a London-based business that deals in smuggled relics.

Van Rijn says Ferrell established his network on 29 January 2000 with Hungarian-born antiquities dealer William Veres and academic Henry Kim of Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum.

After just eight months of dealing, a copy of Ferrell's own profit calcuations - provided to Aljazeera.net by Veres - show that the Texan-born tycoon had made a 400% profit on his initial $2.5m investment.

Neither Ferrell nor executive members of his staff have replied to repeated requests by telephone and e-mail for comment.

And even though Van Rijn invited the FBI to investigate evidence he supplied in 2003, the agency declined to investigate allegations of crimes that had not been committed in the US.

But Veres provided documentation after his relations with Ferrell soured in 2003. The former antiques middle-man explained to Aljazeera.net how the American CEO's network could make so much money so quickly.

Unnamed collectors regularly put Byzantine art up for auction


Veres began his expose by providing Aljazeera.net a copy of an email sent to him by Ferrell two days after the founding of the "business" in 2000.

The Ferrellgas CEO wrote: "I made it crystal clear several times that this was first and foremost a business venture ... people who funnel the stuff from countries where it is found are many.

"In Turkey there must be over a dozen, all living in Istanbul and working the entire country - the richest in finds," Ferrell wrote.

Most of the discussion documented in the email centred on who could be recruited to the new network.

Looters and smugglers throughout Europe and the Middle East were also named by Veres as likely recruits.

Massive profits

As any businessman knows, the secret is to buy low and sell high. And Ferrell has proven himself to be a top businessman.

In September 2000, his $2.5 milllion investment had yielded an $8.5 million profit, according to Ferrell's own calculations provided by Veres.

But how could a Texan energy tycoon buy antiquities for prices so much lower than the estimated market value?

Veres told Aljazeera.net that antiquities with questionable or non-existent provenance [proof of legal ownership] can be bought more cheaply than those with well-documented histories.

Ferrell saw to it he would escape suspicion of his success by legitimising the unprovenanced artefacts he was buying, Veres said.

There are basically two techniques. Dealers and collectors use "tame" academics to write learned descriptions of the materials and explain how important they are. Thus, artefacts of dubious provenance can gain an air of respectability.

Only three police officers deal with art crime in the whole of London

Scholars for dollars

This method was popular with Norwegian art-collector Martin Schoyen, who recently was shamed into returning a large collection of unprovenanced Afghan relics to the Swiss-based Afghan Museum in Exile.

Another ploy is to give artefacts to art galleries and museums. This enables the donor to claim a tax break. Ferrell has given some artefacts to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

And with such initial success, it was not long until Ferrell began investing millions more.

Veres told Aljazeera.net that Ferrell sent him to Lebanon to meet with antiques dealer Abbas Yaghi in his Baalbak home in 2001.

Yaghi had 22 silver Byzantine vessels that had been discovered that year in the northern Syrian village of Shiraz.

Shirazi villagers had found a set of Byzantine bowls, ewers and plates in 2000. The most important piece is a silver plate weighing 2kg thought to originate from 5th or 6th century Antioch. With scalloped edges and five stamps, knowledgable dealers in the London market estimate the plate's value at $15 million.

Despite tough sentences of up to 25 years for selling or smuggling Syrian antiquities, Veres says the village decided to sell to a local dealer, Mahmud Kaysum, for $200,000 - just 6% of the eventual selling price, once Kaysum contacted Yaghi in Lebanon.

Aljazeera.net has a copy of Veres' account of his negotiations with Yaghi and a copy of bank transfer statements showing a series of payments that eventually added up to $3.35m for the artefacts and $335,000 commission for Yaghi.

Veres' account indicates Ferrell was responsible for most of the payment to Yaghi, while Veres paid a smaller amount - as indicated by the bank transfer statement obtained by Aljazeera.net.

Corrupt foreign ministry staff have been used to smuggle art

Smuggling and bribes

Next came the problem of getting the looted goods to London.

Three dealers based in London, Syria and Lebanon, who spoke to Aljazeera.net on condition of anonymity and at great personal risk to their safety, as well as Veres himself, have independently confirmed the following:

The Byzantine vessels were driven to the Jordanian capital, Amman, where they were handed over to two corrupt officials at the kingdom's Foreign Ministry.

Using their diplomatic credentials, the pair flew business class direct to London, where they checked into the $2000 a night Dorchester Hotel, while they waited for Veres to collect the shipment.

Veres said the pair received a $25,000 bribe for their services. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry has denied any such incident took place.

But the Syrian government did begin to ask questions. However, Van Rijn says the Damascus investigation ended abruptly after a $200,000 bribe was paid by the Ferrell network to Yaghi's go-between - Kaysum.

It was only later that Ferrell realised the significance of what he had done.

On 2 April 2003, the millionaire held a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in London with his executive employee Theresa Schekirke and Veres.

In a secret recording of the conversation - made by Van Rijn and Veres - Ferrell referred to the Lebanese dealings.

Veres: I still shudder, you know, about ... you know, about the money sent to, er, Lebanon ...

Ferrell: Yeah, we're really at risk on that, but I don't... What? I can't do anything about it now.

Schekirke: What have you got on paper?

Ferrell: Well ... but it still looks bad.

Later that day, Ferrell and Schekirke had dinner with Yaghi, who has an apartment in London. The encounter was filmed by Van Rijn. After the meeting, the Ferrell network made some major changes.

Now that Ferrell was in touch with a source that offered the possibility of cutting out the middleman, Veres was taken out of the supply chain, and Ferrell started working directly with Yaghi.

New deal

Aljazeera has learned from a fourth dealer interviewed in London that Ferrell bought a batch of 5th century BCE Byzantine necklaces from Yaghi for $250,000 in February.

In March, an even bigger deal was struck. Abbas Yaghi's brother Muhammad flew into London with a valuable but illicit collection of Byzantine artefacts, according to Van Rijn and the fourth dealer.

This time, the goods included gold chains, finger rings with crosses, fibulae and an important group of 6th century Byzantine engraved gem stones, as well as a plundered hoard of Roman gold coins.

According to Aljazeera.net's fourth source, Ferrell's secretary, Schekirke, flew from Ohio to London to take delivery of the artefacts just a week after they arrived in London. She paid the Yaghi brothers £500,000 in cash, the source said.

But despite the international movement of antiques and the huge sums of money involved, nothing has been done to stop this London-based network in more than five years.

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