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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stolen Art Called Fake in N.Y. Court




NEW YORK -- It began as an international art-theft case: three people, from Japan and Azerbaijan, charged in a U.S. District Court in Manhattan in a conspiracy to traffic in stolen art by the great masters.


And it seemed like an open-and-shut case: The U.S. authorities said they had recovered 12 drawings, worth more than $10 million, that were from a collection looted from the Bremen Museum in Germany at the end of World War II -- works by Rembrandt, D?rer, Jacob van Ruisdael and Annibale Carracci.


But Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the author of a book on art fakery, is asking whether the stolen art works are genuine. Hired as a witness for the defense, Hoving said in court papers filed last week he found the drawings to be lesser works or imitations, and all in terrible shape. The so-called Rembrandt was not authentic, he said.


They "appear to have been misattributed to the named artists," Hoving stated. "As far as is known, this is the first scholarly examination of these items in over 50 years," he added. "Their conditions and artistic discrepancies make their re-emergence disappointing at best."


Hoving's findings, filed as part of a broader motion to dismiss the charges and put the art on trial, suggest that the case may be evolving into a battle of experts over the authenticity of the ink, pencil and chalk drawings.


Citing the findings, Michael Lacher, a defense lawyer, told Judge Loretta Preska that his client, Natavan Aleskerova, a prominent lawyer from Baku, Azerbaijan, should not be prosecuted because the drawings seized by the government were not the same as those specified in the indictment.


"If you accuse me of stealing a Rolex, for example, and it turns out that it's a Swatch, I didn't steal a Rolex," Lacher said in a telephone interview.


Prosecutors refused to comment on the defense's findings. Aleskerova and Aydyn Ali Ibragimov, a former champion wrestler, were accused of meeting with an unidentified conspirator in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1995 to get help in selling the stolen drawings and hiding them later in an undisclosed location in New York.


She has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and receiving, concealing and selling stolen goods; Ibragimov is a fugitive. Another man in the case, Masatsugu Koga, has pleaded guilty to the same charges.


The government has asserted in court that the drawings were taken from the Bremen collection after the war and were later stolen from the National Museum of Baku in 1993.


Hoving disputed that. Of a drawing that the government maintains is Rembrandt's "Standing Woman with Raised Hands," worth about $2 million, he wrote: "I cannot imagine it being by the master whose ink drawings throb with energy. Its attribution is incorrect and does not fit Rembrandt's body of work."