For years, law enforcement has prioritised the recovery of looted antiquities, not only because the smuggling of ancient artefacts harms the cultural heritage of their countries of origin, but also because illicit sales have sometimes funded the operations of drug gangs or terrorist organisations.
However, prosecutors claim that Mehrdad Sadigh, a New York antiquities dealer whose gallery has been operating in the shadow of the Empire State Building for decades, decided not to go through the trouble of acquiring ancient items.
Instead, he allegedly created thousands of phoney antiquities in a warren of offices just off his display area and then sold them to unsophisticated and overeager collectors.
“For many years, this phoney antiquities mill in midtown Manhattan promised customers rare treasures from the ancient world and instead sold them pieces manufactured on-site in cookie-cutter fashion,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a statement following Mr. Sadigh’s arrest earlier this month.
Mr. Sadigh has pleaded not guilty to charges of deception, grand larceny, criminal possession of a forged instrument, forgery, and criminal simulation.
According to prosecutors, among those he sold to were undercover federal investigators who paid $4,000 for a gold pendant depicting Tutankhamen’s death mask and a marble portrait head of an ancient Roman woman. These sales prompted a visit to the gallery in August by members of the district attorney’s office and Homeland Security investigations, who claimed to have discovered hundreds of fake artefacts on shelves and inside glass cases. Thousands more, they claimed, had been discovered in the rooms behind the gallery, including scarabs, statuettes, and spear heads in various stages of preparation.
According to Matthew Bogdanos, the chief of the district attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, the visit revealed a sort of assembly-line process designed to distress and otherwise alter mass-produced items of recent vintage so they appear aged. Investigators discovered varnish, spray paints, a belt sander, and mudlike substances of various hues and consistencies, among other tools and materials, he said.
Mr. Sadigh’s lawyer, Gary Lesser, declined to comment on Tuesday.
According to the district attorney’s office, Mr. Sadigh appeared to be one of the country’s largest purveyors of fake artefacts based on the longevity of his business, the number of items seized from his gallery, and his “substantial financial gains.”
Mr. Sadigh had run his gallery for decades, describing it on its website as “a family-owned art gallery specialising in ancient artefacts and coins from around the world.”
The gallery was founded in 1978 as a small mail-order company, according to the website, and in 1982 it relocated to a suite of offices on the upper floor of a building at Fifth Avenue and East 31st Street.
Mr. Sadigh sold items he claimed were Anatolian, Babylonian, Byzantine, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, and Sumerian from his location there. The gallery’s website included an antiquities blog as well as customer testimonials. Google reviews were filled with client accounts, some of whom said they had been shopping there for years and many of whom mentioned how much they appreciated the personal service.
A mummified falcon dated to 305-30 B.C. ($9,000), an Egyptian sarcophagus mask carved from wood and dated to 663-525 B.C. ($5,000), and an iron and nickel fragment from a meteorite that landed in Mongolia ($1,500) were among the items listed for sale on the website in late 2020 and early 2021.
According to the website, “all of our antiquities are guaranteed authentic.”
Mr. Sadigh was brought to the attention of investigators pursuing other dealers involved in the trafficking of looted antiquities, who complained, according to Mr. Bogdanos, that his office was not paying attention to “the guy selling all the fakes.”
When investigators looked into the Sadigh gallery, Mr. Bogdanos said they found someone “too big to not investigate,” rather than a sidewalk peddler of cheap knockoffs.
Mr. Bogdanos recognised a copy of an 11th-century ceramic Khmer Buddha sculpture in the gallery; the original had been seized by the district attorney’s office in a separate case. Other items in the gallery appeared to be replicas of stolen objects from the Iraq Museum, thefts that Mr. Bogdanos assisted in investigating while serving as a Marine colonel in Iraq in 2003.
(Mr. Bogdanos led an effort to recover thousands of items looted by looters during Baghdad’s fall.)
Following Mr. Sadigh’s arrest, prosecutors obtained a second warrant allowing them to search for tools used in the modification of antiquities or “objects purporting to be antiquities,” as well as items such as a $50,000 sarcophagus, a $40,000 cylinder seal, and a $25,000 statue of the goddess Artemis, all of which were suspected of being fakes.
Mr. Sadigh had previously been associated with a dispute over the authenticity of items he had sold, despite his positive online reviews.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa cancelled a planned visiting exhibition in 2019 after Bjorn Anderson, an art history professor at the University of Iowa, claimed that “the majority” of its items appeared to be fakes once sold by the Sadigh gallery.
According to The West Branch Times, which reported the cancellation in 2019, Mr. Sadigh responded, “I don’t know anything about this.”