Established by Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud 2005 - Homs

Exclusive: two Lebanese antiquities dealers loot Syrian history, artefacts

Special Reports | 2018-07-04 03:48:59
Exclusive: two Lebanese antiquities dealers loot Syrian history, artefacts
 Writing by Ethar Abdulhaq

(Zaman Al Wasl)- Zaman al-Wasl has obtained official information reveals how two Lebanese figures with Hezbollah ties have been looting Syrian antiquities,during and before the Syrian revolution erupted seven years ago.

The investigative report shed the light on Ali and Hisham Aboutaam's trade life, relations with Hezbollah and the Assad family, in addition to possible links with Daesh.

 The story of the two Lebanese brothers reveals, in its appearance, an extraordinary success capable of arousing the curiosity and jealousy of those who seek wealth and fame, because of the exciting factors that have collected for these two brothers in their fifties the fortune and the glory of the human heritage in all its diversity, and with all its extraordinary splendor.

But a number of ambiguous transactions precede the story of the brothers' success and many exclamation and interrogation marks follow it, and as much as the days reveal facts concerning  these agreements, as much as the  exclamation and interrogation marks surrounding the lives of the two men fall down.

Based on this, we will begin our investigation from the latest revelations about the two brothers Aboutaam. We are referring here to the news revealing that the Belgian authorities have opened an investigation around their involvement in the marketing of two looted antiquities from Syria, which they promoted through their company Phoenix Ancient Art 

The origins of this affair, which is only an offshoot of a tree embroiled with problems concerning the two brothers, go back to the beginning of 2016. When Belgium confiscated the two Syrian antiquities sent by the Abu Ta’am brothers  at the Fair of Fine Arts in Brussels, known as the Brava, defying the categorical and comprehensive ban against the marketing of Syrian antiquities, imposed by the Security Council in conjunction with the outbreak of the war in Syria and the spread of chaos, which has led to the emergence of bands of various orientations, trading in everything, whatever the danger it entails, its symbolism or its sensitivity

Most likely, it was not in the accounts of the Aboutaam brothers in taking this step, which was thwarted by Belgium, nor by supplementing the previous agreements concerning Syrian monuments that all they will reap will be thorns instead of flowers. After all what harvest a company working in the West could get if it is suspected of cooperation with ISIS, in the trade of the heritage of a stolen country, a trade which represents the financing of his "terrorist" activities. In the same context, one can draw a lesson from what happened regarding the Lafarge Cement company as Zaman al-Wasl was the first media outlet to reveal its oil business with Daesh".

French cement company in Syria buys oil from ISIS: documents 

ISIS seized tons of toxic Hydrazine material from Lafarge Cement in 2014: documents 

Today, as yesterday, our newspaper is following its course in the unveiling of riddles, and the clarification of some ambiguous cases, based on its own proprietary information that can not be questioned as they are based on constant facts

53 Pieces

The first piece of information scrutinizes the identification of the Aboutaam brothers, and the presentation of a simplified account of what has been declared about them in the official Syrian documents preceding the Belgian case of about 16 years old.

According to Zaman al-Wasl documents, Ali Abu-Ta'am was born in 1965 to Lebanese parents, Suleiman Abu-Ta'am and S.Q. He is the brother of Hisham, his partner and director of the Phoenix Creation Art branch, in New York

The documents reveal that in 1999 the investigating judge in economic security cases in Damascus issued a warrant for the Lebanese brothers after having a cargo of Syrian antiquities smuggled into Canada via Lebanon, in the name of and via Phoenix Ancient Art.

The fact of the smuggling and seizure of Syrian antiquities in Canada is confirmed by correspondence from the Communication Division in Beirut (linked to the International Police / Interpol) dated 2000, which referred to the seizure of a lot of 53 archaeological objects smuggled from Tripoli to Canada in the name of "Abu Ta'am", 39 of which were confiscated.

According to Zaman al-Wasl sources, Syria was able to recover some of the looted artefacts which  it officially received, so it was able to turn - albeit temporarily - the black page on Abu Ta'am and Phenix Ancient Art concerning the trade of Syrian cultural heritage plundered

But was the fact that the artifacts were smuggled into Canada the first or the last page in Abu Ta'am's account, and is it necessary and feasible to verify documents dating back to 18 years?

The answer to these two simple but very profound questions in their essence, will not be provided by Zaman al-Wasl as this is contrary to professionalism, but we will let the biography of "Abu Ta'am" speak for him , and tell it from the day Father Suleiman founded his company in Beirut in the 1960s until the moment

After Suleiman-Abu-Ta'am had accumulated wealth through trade with American ships arriving in Kuwait, the man returned to Beirut to establish what was his life's dream, his passion and his obsession. A company that collects archaeological treasures from the eastern markets which are open to chaos, and sells them to Western markets eager for history and floating on a huge amount of money. 


It was evident that Syria, rich with its heritage, was a focal point of Suleiman Aboutaam's activity, who worked to raise his two sons Ali and Hisham passionately to fill their lives and control their course. Since adolescence, they have become two fervent traders to the point that Ali - still a boy at the time - was able in the early 1980s (while the winds of the Lebanese war were turning in Lebanon and Syria), to win a commission of $ 15,000 on an antique market while on his way to school, he relied mainly on his father Solomon's "school" to seize opportunities.

And as the father was perfectly aware of the value of the treasures, he was very generous in paying dearly for saving his most precious treasure, his eldest son, "Ali," who was kidnapped in Syria later for a period of approximately 10 days, his father was forced to pay half a million dollars in ransom to release him. That makes a huge amount of money on the abduction date scale (mid-1980s), which perhaps already refers to two things: the first is the father's appreciation to his eldest son and his commitment in the pursuit of his descendants carrying his glory and inheriting his fortune, the second is the magnitude of the influence and strength of the "gang" who kidnapped the son. To the extent that a merchant who controls the sum of millions and who no doubt has relations with senior officials of the Assad regime either politicians or intelligence members could not release his son "but was forced to pay a fee, which can also be a form of account liquidation.

The school of Sulaiman did not stop at the borders of his company that he founded in Beirut but it soon turned to a "magnet" that attracts all the traders and antique dealers of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Egypt etc. He learned well how to benefit from the free exchange he had practiced in Kuwait and he felt that the moment of applying what he has learned has come, but this time in Switzerland,, the global fortress of the most important funds, and the safest sanctuary for all those who like to market in expensive luxury products and extravagant things, ranging from diamonds and archaeological finds, up to wines and caviar. In Switzerland alone, there are 17 free zones which, until recently, represented a "paradise" for these big heads first from the point of view of taxation where the merchant does not pay a tax on his goods, no matter how many years it is stored, except when it spares them from warehouses and sells them, and secondly, in terms of ensuring the concealment of these "goods" from the eyes of "right holders" or those who watch their paths As will be later clear from the  biography of "Abu Ta'am" with what is known as the mask of "double beauty".

But let's quickly return to the relationship between the "Abu Ta'am" brothers and the Syrian heritage. as this is the core of our investigation and its main purpose. The author of the investigation noticed that this biography was transformed in the lapse of a few years: from the falsification of the certificate of Syrian origin, to the negation of the Syrian origin in all or in part. This means the two brothers' relationship with Syrian antiquities has turned 180 degrees, from pseudo-plagiarism to repudiation and total denial. Their obsession has become how to deny the Syrian character of the heritage of this country. Despite the fact that their main concern was rather to characterize as Syrian all that has no relation with Syria.

There is no more appropriate explanation for clarifying what we have already stated and proving in practice, than recourse to the procedures of two trials in which Hisham Abu Ta'am was part.


In the summer of 2004, Hisham Aboutaam admitted in a US court that he was "guilty" because he had forged a certificate of origin for a rare pottery claiming to be of Syrian origin and sold for $ 950,000, although in fact it comes from Iran. This was confirmed by the inquiries of authorities specializing in antiquity and supported by the statement of "Hisham", who justified his crime by saying that he was forced to do so because the client was eager to buy this artifact . while Hisham feared that US customs officials would delay approval to import and ship it to the US

In the summer of 2017, Hisham challenged himself and filed a lawsuit against the US newspaper Dow Jones, owner of the Wall Street Journal, which published an investigation pointing fingers at the brothers, Abu Ta'am and their relationship to the purchase of artifacts looted from Syria by the Islamic State. "

In paragraph 36 (pages 8 and 9), "Hisham" literally says: "The Wall Street Journal investigation has once again confirmed that the pieces (confiscated in Belgium in early 2016) are of Syrian origin and, as announced without attributing that the Belgian authorities are investigating whether the pieces were searched (extracts) at the outbreak of the war in Syria.  In his response, Phoenix (led by Hisham Abu Ta’am) explained: it is not true that the implied things are of Syrian origin, one of them is Byzantine (of character) and can be originated-quite simply-from anywhere in the Byzantine Empire, and is more likely to come from Rome. This piece was presented at an auction in Paris in 2007 and was sold in another European auction in 2010. The second piece was the subject of a report by Art Loss Register (The leading institution in the documentation of  lost artifacts), and this report shows that the loss of the peice was due to a period prior to the control of the Islamic State in the territory concerned (the site of Mary in the Syrian region of Abu Kamal).

What is the secret behind this transformation, and how does the Syrian identity of any trace exchanged by the brothers, "Abu Ta'am", become a suspicion and an accusation that they try to deny by all means, although stamping Syrian identity on medium value items was the preferred method to collect about a million dollars as in one of the revealed transactions? There were probably similar agreements (in which Syrian identity was affixed to non-Syrian objects), but the eye of the investigators may not have mentioned them.

Therefore, since Syrian antiquities before the war years were common to all those who wanted to trade them in the world market, it was very easy for the Abu Ta'am brothers as well as all other antique dealers to convince the eager customer through telling  him: Sir, you have to be afraid of nothing, it is a Syrian antiquity !, After the outbreak of the war and the imposition of a severe embargo on the promotion of Syrian antiquities by the Security Council  the phrase that best sound to the eager customer: Sir, don t be afraid. this unique piece is not at all from Syria, it has nothing to do with Syria.

Who believes?

Thus, it is clear from the concrete and precise comparison that all the values of verification, integrity, transparency, credibility and ... that the Aboutaam brothers speak about in the press or highlight on their sites and their companies are just slogans that blend easily and immediately, and their loophole is accelerated in the mind of the customer or the Law by a "cast" allowing fraud

When the Iranian antiquities trade was strictly forbidden, the claim that the pottery was of Syrian origin contributed $ 950,000 to the pocket of the two brothers, and when Syrian antiquities became a serious suspicion and trading them  was a crime as well as the purchase of artifacts - specifically passed in counterpoint by the Islamic State - is an unforgivable crime, The evasion of Syrian identity has become a strategic choice for Abu Ta'am

Although the allegation or escape of the Syrian identity of the trafficked objects is of a naive nature for the brothers, sometimes it helps them most often to evade criminal responsibility. Taking the case of the Iranian pottery that has already been mentioned (which was sold at around a million dollars) ended up in admitting being guilty and paying a fine of 5 thousand dollars .. Yes only 5 thousand dollars. and in the case of the two confiscated objects in Belgium since the beginning of 2016, Abu Ta'am has simply lodged a complaint against the one who accused him, and he continues his film in all naivety by saying that one of the two pieces are not Syrian, but Byzantine and from Rome, "probably", and that the other piece is looted from Syria, but not done by  members of the Isalmic state. The question here for Aboutaam does not relate to proving the innocence of the trafficked antiques looted in Syria, as far as relates to evidence that it was not looted by Isil, and therefore the Lebanese brothers are not involved with the Islamic State organization.

We do not know who can believe a claim like the one Hisham Aboutaam illustrated about the first piece. This man who owns an institution that speaks day and night of his accumulated experience in the world of antiques and artefacts and his recourse to eminent experts to confirm by testing and insight the originality of the pieces and their origins. This allows the brothers to give the buyer a solid guarantee that what he has purchased is genuine, not falsified, neither in his origin nor in his data. While Hisham says in his lawsuit against Dow Jones that the first piece confiscated in Belgium is "probably from Rome". Who can believe that?

Here, we open the parentheses to put in the hands of the reader a literal quotation from the complaint filed by "Hisham Aboutaam against "Dow Jones", and that Zaman al-Wasl proved with the documents already presented and by those who will be exposed later that this is a quote contrary to reality and devoid of content. By quoting these words; Hisham Aboutaam said, "Hisham Abu-Ta'am is a respected, world-renowned and respected merchant whose biography, profession and work are based on his honesty and integrity, including his information about the origin source of valuables he buys and sells The applicant has an integrity record and, in particular, an obvious obligation to issue documentary records of the items he buys, sells and declare in shipments sent to customers

Before concluding this part of our investigation, it is paradoxical that the fate of Syrian antiquities is limited to two different pillages: when the plunder was the monopoly of an elite known to most Syrians the sale was available in different markets of the world, and the Syrian heritage was at the table of all traders and broker, without fear of any pursuit. When the looting of antiquities became common to various parts of Syria, with the diversity of their orientations, their nationalities and their slogans, the circulation of Syrian heritage abroad has become a major crime

Zaman Al Wasl- Ethar Abdul Haq
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