Two individuals named in official documents as Ali A. and Hicham A. are reportedly under investigation by authorities in Brussels for their possible involvement in dealing antiquities smuggled out of Syria, the Wall Street Journal reports. The newspaper reports that the pair are, in fact, Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, the proprietors of Phoenix Ancient Art SA, an antiquities concern based in New York and Geneva, citing a source in Belgium as well as previous reporting on the case.
The two brothers have previously been suspected of improperly extracting ancient objects from Syria, and in May 2017, the Journal reported that Belgium was working with Switzerland and France to investigate whether the brothers had put illegally obtained objects on the market. The paper’s story on Saturday was the first time Belgian prosecutors confirmed that the Aboutaam brothers were indeed under investigation. Belgium reportedly became involved in the investigation when two bas-reliefs were confiscated by customs authorities while in transit to the Brussels Antiques & Fine Art Fair (Brafa) in 2016. Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the Belgian prosecution, said that his country’s inquiry was part of the larger Swiss investigation, and added in a statement that “it’s an ongoing investigation in close cooperation with Swiss authorities about the export of illegally obtained artifacts from Syria.”
Attorneys for Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, and Phoenix Ancient Art SA, have forcefully denied any involvement or wrongdoing related to smuggled antiquities. Didier Bottge, who represents the dealers’ Geneva branch, said the three-country-pronged attacked was simply a look into the law on cultural property transfer and value-added tax, insisting that “my client formally denies being involved in ‘Syrian art trafficking.’” Another attorney, for Hicham Aboutaam, said the authorities had yet to contact his client’s legal team, and that stories on the investigation contain “fake facts.” In a 2017 interview, Ali Aboutaam said that the notion the two bas-reliefs could be stolen from Syria was “total bullshit.” Hicham filed a libel suit against the Wall Street Journal following the 2017 article and sent various materials to the paper in an attempt to prove their innocence. After reviewing these materials, the Belgian authorities still decided to open the probe.