Kim Kardashian: reality TV star, model, human rights campaigner, mogul, billionaire, and, now, alleged antiquities trafficker?
The U.S. government has filed a complaint asking Kardashian to forfeit an ancient Roman statue that was smuggled out of Italy. According to the verified complaint, import documents named Kardashian and the Noel Roberts Trust as the consignee and importer. (The Noel Roberts Trust is connected to various property acquisitions made by Kim Kardashian and her now-estranged husband Kanye West in 2014.)
The statue was seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Los Angeles/Long Beach Seaport on June 15, 2016. The limestone sculpture, which is known as Fragment of Myron’s Samian Athena, was dated to around the turn of the Common Era and part of a consignment valued at $745,882.00.
The customs broker and logistics company Masterpiece International originally claimed that the statue was acquired at the Galerie Chenel in Paris in 2012 by renowned art dealer Axel Vervoordt. Vervoordt is the art dealer and interior designer who worked on Kardashian and West’s Los Angeles estate. The provenance supplied to customs authorities identified the statue as coming from an “Old German Collection, bought before 1980.” When customs authorities examined the statue, however, they realized that the description of the item involved in the 2012 sale did not describe the statue being imported on behalf of Kardashian in 2016. As is commonplace in such situations, the complaint is not against the Noel Roberts Trust or Kardashian herself, it is against the statue.
Representatives for Kim Kardashian denied that the mogul had been involved in the sale and import of the statue. They said "We believe it may have been purchased using her name without authorisation and because it was never received, she was unaware of the transaction. We encourage an investigation and hope that it gets returned to the rightful owners.” A spokesperson at the Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Belgium told The Daily Beast that they stood by their originally provenance for the piece: “we...acquired the piece in good faith from a French gallery who had also acquired it in equally good faith from a German auction house. The former collector was English but precise traces seem to stop there. However, there is no evidence that this piece was illegally imported from Italy.Our client, as well as our gallery and the gallery from whom we’ve bought the piece have always acted in good faith when dealing with the work.”
Under the UNESCO convention, items of cultural and historical interest discovered after 1970 cannot be removed from their countries of origin except under special agreement. As Naomi Rea has written “as part of a bilateral agreement to crack down on the pillaging of cultural heritage, the U.S. has restricted imports of archeological material originating from Italy. Any importer now needs clear documentation authorizing the importation or other documents such as an affidavit, license, or permit stating that the export was not in violation of the laws of the country of origin.” Erin L. Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College (CUNY) and author of a book on the history of private collecting of antiquities, told me that even if a statue is looted and ends up on display at high profile art event it still has to clear U.S. Customs at the border. “Essentially,” she said “Customs makes one last double-check” to see if the paperwork is in order.
In this case, however, U.S. Customs were tipped off by the paperwork submitted by the shippers themselves. Thompson told The Daily Beast, “One funny thing about this case is that the shippers provided the information that made Customs suspicious in the first place. When Customs asked for more information, [the shippers] gave them paperwork indicating that the statue came from Italy, which Customs didn’t have much reason to suspect before.”
This meant, Thompson told me, that Customs knew that the shipper had failed to get Italy’s permission to export the statue. An unsworn affidavit provided by Masterpiece International stated that the statue “does not originate from Italy,” but handwritten notes mistakenly showed by them to Customs suggested that it did. Subsequent analysis by an archaeologist from Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage determined that the statue was from Italy. “The Italians,” said Thompson, “provided information… that showed that the shipper was lying… to try to cover up their initial error.”
There was no way that the statue could have been licit because no one had reported a “fortuitous find” matching its description or applied for an export license for the piece. Both of these steps have been compulsory under Italian law since 1909.
“What we know is that the statue was illegally imported into the United States," Thompson told me. "What we don’t know for sure is where it came from before that.” The archaeologist who examined the statue told the U.S. government that the sculpture “was looted, smuggled, and illegally exported from Italy,” but we cannot be any more precise.
Kardashian and West have a personal connection to Italy: West claimed their daughter North was conceived there in 2012, they were married in Florence in 2014, and they visited Rome in 2016 to celebrate their two-year wedding anniversary. There is no suggestion that Kardashian herself was aware of the object’s history or issues with its provenance.
While some defendants, for example, Hobby Lobby Inc., try to present these seizures as a question of incomplete paperwork, there is more at stake than just bureaucratic red tape or logistical oversights. Looters destroy archaeological sites and cultural heritage. In certain parts of the world antiquities trafficking finances other forms of crime like terrorism. In the past, the U.S. government has characterized some instances of antiquities trafficking as “cultural genocide.”
The seizure and civil forfeiture of the statue may not be the end of the matter. According to the complaint, the court may still request “other and further relief” as well as the costs incurred by the proceedings. Moreover, the seizure raises questions about the status and provenance of other antiquities housed at the Axel Vervoordt galleries in Belgium and Hong Kong including any other pieces potentially acquired on behalf of Ms. Kardashian.