Looted antiques have been a law enforcement priority for years, not only because smuggling ancient artifacts harms the cultural heritage of their countries of origin, but because illegal sales have sometimes funded the operations of drug gangs or terrorist organizations.
But prosecutors say Mehrdad Sadigh, a New York antiques dealer whose Sadigh Gallery operated for decades in the shadow of the Empire State Building, decided not to bother buying antique items.
Instead, he made fake copies, it is said that he manufactured thousands of counterfeit antiques in a tangle of offices right next to his display area and then marketed them to uneducated and overzealous collectors.
“For many years this counterfeit antique mill in Midtown Manhattan promised customers rare treasures from ancient times and instead sold them pieces that were locally made in cookie cutters,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., in a testimony after Mr. Sadigh was arrested earlier this month.
Mr. Sadigh has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, aggravated theft, criminal possession of a counterfeit instrument, counterfeiting and criminal simulation.
Among the people he was selling to, according to prosecutors, were federal undercover agents who bought a gold pendant depicting Tutankhamun’s death mask and a marble portrait head of an ancient Roman woman – they paid $ 4,000 for each. Those sales formed the basis for a visit to the gallery in August by prosecutors and homeland security investigators who said they found hundreds of counterfeit artifacts on shelves and in glass cases. Thousands more were found in the rooms behind the gallery – including scarabs, statuettes and spearheads in various stages of preparation.
Matthew Bogdanos, the chief of the district attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, said in an interview that the visit revealed some sort of assembly line process that was apparently designed to distress and otherwise alter mass-produced items of the latest generation to make them appear aged. The investigators found, among other things, varnishes, spray paints, a belt sander and mud-like substances of different colors and consistencies.
Gary Lesser, an attorney for Mr. Sadigh, declined to comment on Tuesday.
Prosecutors said Mr. Sadigh appears to be one of the largest suppliers of counterfeit artifacts in the country due to the longevity of his business, the number of items confiscated from his gallery and his “significant financial gains”.
Mr. Sadigh had operated his gallery for decades and advertised it on their website as a “family owned art gallery specializing in ancient artifacts and coins from around the world”.
Founded as a small mail order company in 1978, the website said the gallery moved to a series of offices on the upper floor of a building on Fifth Avenue and East 31st Street in 1982.
From his location there, Mr. Sadigh put up for sale items that he said were Ancient Anatolian, Babylonian, Byzantine, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, and Sumerian. There was a blog on the gallery’s website about antiques and testimonials from satisfied customers. The Google reviews published online have been filled with customer accounts, some of whom said they have been shopping there for years, and many of them mentioned personal service that they value.
Items that went for sale on the site in late 2020 and early 2021 included a mummified hawk dating from 305-30 BC and a nickel fragment from a meteorite that landed in Mongolia ($ 1,500).
“All of our antiques are guaranteed to be authentic,” says the website.
Investigators became aware of Mr. Sadigh when other dealers persecuted for trafficking in stolen antiques complained.
When investigators examined the Sadigh Gallery, Bogdanos said, they did not find a sidewalk vendor selling cheap imitations, but someone “too big not to investigate”.
Among the items Mr. Bogdanos recognized in the gallery was a copy of an 11th century Khmer ceramic sculpture of a Buddha; the original was confiscated by the public prosecutor in a separate case. Other items in the gallery appeared to be modeled after items stolen from the Iraq Museum, which Mr. Bogdanos was involved in investigating when he was serving as Naval Colonel in Iraq in 2003.
(Mr Bogdanos went to great lengths to recover thousands of items that looters had stolen during the fall of Baghdad.)
After Mr. Sadigh’s arrest, prosecutors received a second warrant allowing them to search for tools used in modifying antiques or “items that purport to be antiques”, as well as items such as a sarcophagus inside Valued at $ 50,000, a cylinder seal valued at $ 40,000, and a statue of the goddess Artemis valued at $ 25,000, all suspected of being counterfeit.
Despite his positive reviews on the Internet, Mr. Sadigh had previously been linked to a dispute over the authenticity of the items he was selling.
In 2019, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa canceled a scheduled visiting exhibit after Bjorn Anderson, a professor of art history at the University of Iowa, said that once made by, “the majority” of their items appear to be counterfeit the Sadigh Gallery had been sold
“I don’t know about it,” said Sadigh, according to The West Branch Times, which reported on the cancellation in 2019.