Author: Dr. Angelika Hellweger 27 September 2023
Investigations by Rahman Ravelli’s Angelika Hellweger and a Middle East newspaper discovered that the British Museum purchased an ancient Egyptian artefact from a convicted smuggler.
Angelika, an art crime expert, was interviewed by both The Times and The Telegraph about how she and The National found out that the museum bought a shabti from Mousa Khouli.
New York antiques dealer Khouli, who is also known as Morris Khouli, pleaded guilty in 2012 to buying and smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States and making false declarations to customs about the country of origin and value of the items.
A shabti is a figurine typically found in ancient Egyptian tombs. The British Museum acquired the shabti – which is more than 3,500 years old - from Khouli in 2017. This year, 64 stone carvings that were linked to Khouli were among smuggled cultural property seized by US law enforcement officials and returned to the Republic of Yemen.
Angelika told The Telegraph that she was astonished to discover that when buying the shabti the British Museum had apparently relied on scans of ownership records provided by Khouli - a criminal whose convictions include making false statements. She emphasised that scans of original documents cannot be verified, and that “red flags” should have been raised over such an individual, who would be known within the antiquities community.
She told The Times that the four-page document, written in Arabic, was said to record the purchase of the artefact in 1946 by an Egyptian man who then took it to Brooklyn.
But she said: “It said it had been in family hands since then but we have no transfer of ownership, no inheritance documents, which should have raised alarm bells.
“Who is actually responsible for this due diligence? With the due diligence they could have found out Khouli is a convicted criminal.”
She emphasised the urgent need for the museum to verify the origins of other undocumented items in the collection. Angelika added that there was an ethical question over whether the British Museum should acquire works from convicted dealers – and if it does, it should be conducting increased due diligence.
The British Museum’s shabti is not on display and is currently in storage.
Angelika is a specialist in international, high-level economic crime investigations and large-scale commercial disputes. She has widely-recognised expertise in representing corporates and conglomerates in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and United States.