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The Case of the Looted Bust
BC Law alum Leila Amineddoleh is one of the world’s leading experts on plundered artworks. In 2018, she found herself entrenched in a global art-world mystery.
The call began like so many others she’d taken. It was October 2018, and Leila Amineddoleh had just picked up the phone in her Manhattan law firm. The caller, a woman named Laura Young, from Austin, Texas, told her that she had a case for her, something that would be well worth her time.
As one of the world’s foremost attorneys specializing in the shadowy world of looted artwork, Amineddoleh LAW ’06 was used to these kinds of calls. She got them all the time, and experience had taught her that skepticism was the best approach. When she’d first started out and was hungry for work to keep her fledgling practice afloat, Amineddoleh couldn’t afford the luxury of such caution. She chased down every lead. Once, she’d eagerly investigated a client’s claims involving her personal art collection, only to discover that the woman suffered from mental illness and that the collection was made up of museum posters. Then there was the call from someone who suspected that he was the illegitimate grandson of Vincent van Gogh—his grandmother, he maintained, had been a lover of the legendary painter.
Today, though, Amineddoleh can afford to be selective. She’s an internationally recognized authority on art law and cultural heritage, writes for leading publications, teaches classes at respected universities, and has won big cases for clients such as the governments of Greece and Italy. “I’ve reached a point in my career where I don’t really get carried away,” Amineddoleh said. “Unless someone can give me real evidence, really, really good proof that what they have is real and they’re not giving me some type of scam story, I’m just not going to be interested.” Still, Amineddoleh agreed on this day to hear Young out, primarily because she’d been referred by a professional acquaintance.
Young explained over the phone that she ran a business out of her home, buying undervalued items from thrift stores and reselling them online. A history major and art lover, Young said that she’d had success in the past identifying overlooked artworks, so when she spotted a banged-up marble bust listed for $34.99 in an Austin Goodwill, she sensed right away that it could be something special. Despite its rough shape, the bust struck her as similar in style to what was common during the days of the Roman Empire. So she bought it and hauled it home. Her research had since turned up evidence that the bust did, in fact, date back to ancient Rome. What concerned her, however, was something else from her sleuthing: that the piece might have been plundered during World War II and somehow brought to America. If that was the case, what did the law have to say about her rights to the bust?
By this time, Amineddoleh was desperate to get off the phone. The story struck her as wildly improbable, and she was in pain from a surgery she’d undergone the week before. But just as Amineddoleh was about to concoct an excuse for hanging up, Young explained that her information had come from Sotheby’s, the famous auction house, which had done its own research on the piece after being contacted by Young. “When I heard Sotheby’s had provided this information, that’s when I knew it was real,” Amineddoleh said. “At that point I got super excited.”
Amineddoleh accepted the case, and when her work on it was at last completed three years later, the story of the mysterious bust would appear in publications around the world, and the lawyer would achieve a prominence she could scarcely have imagined when she’d walked away from a job at a respected firm years before and bet everything on herself.
Laura Young spent six years working as a disability examiner for the Social Security Administration, a job she really did not enjoy, before transitioning full time in 2013 to her business of unearthing thrift-store treasures that she resells online. “I get to shop for a living and find really cool, weird things that make people happy,” she said.
Young, then, is no stranger to the thrill of rescuing an ordinary item from the shelves of a corner vintage shop, cleaning it up, and discovering that it’s actually quite valuable. There were, for instance, the Chinese porcelain planters she’d bought before the start of the pandemic and posted online for $1,750…a price that ignited a bidding frenzy. “There was some pandemonium on eBay,” she said. “People were trying to buy them for more and more money. I’m like, What do I have here? It got me so nervous that I just pulled them off the site.” She held onto the planters until last fall, when she at last let them go for $20,000. “They were just sitting there in the dining room for, you know, four years,” she said.
By the time Young came upon the marble bust in her neighborhood Goodwill back in 2018, she had learned to trust her instincts. The man depicted in the bust had the impassive countenance and wavy, Greco-Roman hairstyle that she judged to be representative of works from ancient Rome. It was possible that the piece was simply a replica, but Young decided that it didn’t actually matter. “It could have been made yesterday and I would’ve been thrilled to buy it for $35,” Young said. “A carved marble bust that’s life-size, even if it’s brand-new, that’s potentially worth thousands of dollars.” Then again, there was always the possibility that the piece truly was thousands of years old. So Young bought it, and enlisted a store employee to help get the fifty-two-pound bust safely seat-belted into her car.
Once home, Young began to research her new find. A quick “Roman marble bust” internet search turned up photos of pieces that looked a lot like the one she’d just bought, which confirmed what she already suspected but didn’t provide much else that was useful. Next, she submitted photos and a description of the bust on the websites of the big auction houses—Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams—which will research, for free, the provenance of a piece they might like to sell. “It’s an easy way to get expert eyes on it,” Young said.
Bonhams got back to Young first, confirming that the bust was definitely ancient Roman, but unable to tell her much else. A couple of days later, Sotheby’s responded. “They tracked it down in museum records from Germany in the early 1930s,” Young said.
What she would eventually be able to piece together with the help of a Sotheby’s consultant named Jörg Deterling was that the bust was approximately two thousand years old, and may be a depiction of the Roman military commander Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. The bust was purchased somewhere around 1833 by representatives of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, just one of the countless number of artworks he was purchasing from across Europe at the time as part of a frenzied effort to transform his country into a world-class arts mecca. Not content to simply acquire these works, Ludwig also commissioned the building of museums to house them. Among these grand new structures was the Pompejanum, which was constructed in the style of a villa found in ancient Pompeii, and which became the bust’s new home. And there the piece sat, year after year, until a bombing campaign during World War II left the museum, and much of its collection, in ruins. Some items in the museum survived the bombings, however.
What became of crucial importance to Young and Sotheby’s was determining whether the bust was still in the museum at the time of the bombings, or whether it had been deaccessioned, or sold off, prior to that. If it had been lawfully sold, then Young might well have a legal claim to it. But if no records of a sale could be found, then it was likely that the piece had been looted from the museum after the bombings, and therefore remained the property of the government of Bavaria, which today is Germany’s largest state.
“At that point I was getting a little nervous,” Young said. She sent off emails to various agencies in Germany, hoping to untangle the mystery. When she finally heard back from someone with the relevant agency, the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes, the news was not promising. The bust had not been deaccessioned. “I realized I probably had a problem and I was probably going to need an attorney,” Young said. “But I didn’t know how I was going to track one down.”
Young started at the University of Texas, where her husband works as a research scientist, with an email to Stephennie Mulder, an associate professor of art history. Mulder suggested that she try Erin Thompson, an associate professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Thompson, as it happened, knew just the right person: Leila Amineddoleh in New York. “Most people specialize in the law of one country or in repatriations of a limited set of artifacts,” Thompson said of her reasons for recommending Amineddoleh to Young. “But Leila‘s expertise is both deep and broad. Often, she has to research what the laws were in previous centuries in a number of countries an artifact passed through. And she’s managing to take all this heady intellectual analysis of the meaning of the law and actually apply it to cases.”
One Wednesday last September, Leila Amineddoleh stood at a lectern in an exhibition space in the Salmagundi Club, a New York City center for fine arts that dates back to 1871, and prepared to address the fifty or so people who’d come out for her talk, titled “The Battle for Antiquities.”
Wearing a white dress and gold-colored headband, Amineddoleh began her presentation, which was organized by the venerable New York arts group the Coffee House Club, by clicking the remote control in her hand. A still from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark filled the large screen to her right. “Indiana Jones,” she told her audience, “was a looter. He removed works from their homes and placed them in Western museums. And while doing so, Dr. Jones also destroyed ancient sites."
As a leading expert on art and cultural heritage law, Amineddoleh delivers a lot of talks like this. She has a rare ability to explain complex laws in conversational language, and, more important, to help people who’ve never spent a moment contemplating the significance of cultural heritage understand exactly what’s lost when an age-old site is plundered of its treasures. And to illustrate this sad point, she has her choice of an endless selection of historical examples.
As early as the second century BC, the Greek author Polybius decried the Roman looting of Greek sanctuaries in Sicily, Amineddoleh told her audience as she continued with the presentation. Later, Cicero would prosecute the Roman mayor Gaius Verres for looting. And when Napoleon attempted to create a new Rome in Paris, he did so by plundering works all across Europe and North Africa. Then there were the Nazis, who among their many other atrocities, looted on such a vast scale that an estimated 20 percent of all the art in Europe wound up displaced.
“The fear of looting has haunted people for centuries,” Amineddoleh said. “People in the ancient world were so concerned about it that some attempted to ward off would-be plunderers by placing curses on their property.” These hexes, though, would prove little deterrent to the thieves who, many centuries later, would steal mummified remains from Egypt and sell them to the collectors who hosted “unwrapping parties,” delighting gatherings in faraway countries by unwrapping the mummies. As a murmur of shocked disapproval spread through the audience at the mention of this indignity, Amineddoleh built up to her sweeping conclusion. “Heritage is extremely powerful,” she said. “It offers knowledge about our past and informs our future. It’s part of our collective memory and it represents our humanity. We have a profound responsibility to share our greatest human achievements, to protect and pass along the story of civilization to future generations.”
Amineddoleh was raised in a New Jersey home that overflowed with art. “My dad’s Iranian, and I grew up with beautiful Persian rugs and art in our home,” she said. “And my mom is Italian-American—another culture where art is so important—and she’s a painter.” Her upbringing ignited a lifelong passion for the visual arts, but Amineddoleh found her own creative expression in music. She began studying the piano at age four, and earned spending money while attending New York University by playing in a Washington Square Park restaurant.
At NYU, she majored in economics, with minors in music, philosophy, and chemistry, but realized by the time she’d graduated in 2002 that what she really wanted to pursue was law. “I loved thinking about equity and issues of justice and fairness and the meaning of life, but I also loved creative enterprises,” she said. Upon entering BC Law, in 2003, her plan was to become an intellectual property lawyer working for a publishing or music company, but then she read a book called Thieves of Baghdad. In it, Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine and New York City prosecutor, details his time running a unit charged with recovering the many thousands of culturally significant antiquities that were plundered from the Iraqi National Museum over two tumultuous days in the spring of 2003. “After reading that, I was like, That’s what I want to do,” Amineddoleh said. “It was incredible. There was a role for lawyers in protecting culture.” Inspired, she conducted an independent study during her third year at the Law School, exploring the responsibilities that museums have to ensure they are not acquiring or accepting looted artworks, particularly antiquities.
As she prepared to graduate in 2006, Amineddoleh had identified the career path she wanted to follow. Actually finding that path, however, would take a few years. Just before turning twenty-five, she started out at the highly regarded New York intellectual property law firm Fitzpatrick, Cella. The firm was doing a lot of work with pharmaceutical patents, she said, and thanks to her chemistry minor “I knew enough science to communicate with clients and understand cases. But my work was pharma, and I really, really didn’t like it.”
After three years at the firm, Amineddoleh left in 2009. It was time, she’d decided, to begin merging her legal skills and her passion for the arts. She helped a friend’s sister, an aspiring fashion designer, trademark a logo, and negotiated contracts for a couple of emerging musical acts. In 2010 she joined a small law firm, then switched to another in 2012, all the while developing her art law specialty and her growing roster of clients. Eventually, she started to ask herself why she should be working for someone else when she was the one bringing in her clients. So in 2014, she and another lawyer founded their own firm. The beginning was rocky, “but by the second year, we made a small profit,” she said. Still, her law partner had three children to support, and “it just wasn’t working for him financially,” Amineddoleh said. “I understood.”
The partner left in 2016 but Amineddoleh, lacking his financial pressures—it would be another year before she and her husband Eduardo Diaz welcomed their daughter Cassandra—decided to continue building a niche practice on her own, catering to emerging artists and collectors.
Now a solo practitioner, Amineddoleh was attending gallery shows and art events or giving lectures as many as five nights a week, trying “to meet anyone and everyone to get my name out there, to find work,” she said. “It’s an area where people have to really like their lawyers. Artists have this very emotional attachment to their work, and I think collectors do as well, so you really need to make those personal connections.”
But it was another of her strategies for finding clients, writing newspaper opinion pieces, that would lay the foundation for the first big break of Amineddoleh’s career. In 2015, she argued in the New York Times that England should return the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of ancient Greek statues that were looted by the agents of a British Earl, who then fell on financial hard times and sold them to Britain in 1816. Impressed with the piece, Forbes asked Amineddoleh to write an expanded article on the subject, which ended up catching the attention of an official with the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Amineddoleh nurtured that connection, and when Greece found itself the subject of a most unusual lawsuit in 2018, she was the lawyer the country hired to defend itself. The case represented the first time that a foreign government had been sued in the United States over a matter involving antiquities—the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act typically provides immunity from such suits—and it would go on to help lay the foundation for an important legal precedent.
The dispute originated after Greece moved to prevent Sotheby’s from selling an item it believed had been plundered. The auction house eventually sued, arguing that Greece was attempting to engage in commerce, which would trigger an exception to the immunity act. “Our argument, obviously, was ‘No, there was nothing commercial about what Greece did,’” Amineddoleh said. “Greece is just protecting its cultural heritage by saying, Don’t sell our stolen stuff.” Sotheby’s countered that this action amounted to intervening in commerce.
It was a pivotal moment in Amineddoleh’s career. She walked into the courtroom by herself. Across from her were two partners and a handful of associates from “this very large, very well-known Wall Street law firm,” she said. “And then there was me on the other side.” The pressure, and the stakes, were incredible. A loss might establish the legal precedent that foreign governments could not sue to stop auction houses from selling looted art. “That was their goal,” Amineddoleh said of Sotheby’s. “They kind of want silence.”
When the ruling finally came down, it was a bitter disappointment. The judge found for Sotheby’s. “This sounds horrible—my mom was like, ‘Don’t ever tell anyone!’—but I cried,” Amineddoleh said. She felt like she’d failed. “This was a major opportunity. The United States is the country for setting law. This was a case of first impression. That’s the only way to describe it. New law was being made.”
Amineddoleh may have doubted herself for a moment, but her client never wavered. Greece approved of her legal arguments and believed that the decision had been a mistake. The case was appealed and this time Amineddoleh triumphed. It was the legal equivalent of a rout. “I love this decision,” she said. “Not just because we won, but it’s really interesting to see how the court treated cultural heritage. It’s a big win for foreign governments and not just for Greece. I’ve written about this, I’ve thought about this so much…I mean, it was an obsession in my life for years.”
Greece wasn’t the only government impressed with Amineddoleh’s work. Even as the appeal was pending, the government of Italy hired her to defend a copycat suit from a New York gallery, filed after the initial loss in district court. That suit was eventually dismissed. “There have been three cases now involving foreign governments and I’ve represented two of the three governments,” she said. (Switzerland is the third.) “All three have failed. I can’t imagine there are going to be more of these actions, because now we have really strong precedent.”
Today, Amineddoleh & Associates has a team of four lawyers working with artists, collectors, museums, galleries, nonprofits, and governments. In addition to her legal work, Amineddoleh teaches art law classes at both NYU and Fordham University.
“She’s talented and she cares,” said Matthew Bogdanos, whose book Thieves of Baghdad so inspired Amineddoleh while at BC Law. As the head of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Bogdanos has “asked for and received her assistance on a number of cases,” he said. It’s an honor when someone cites him as an inspiration, he noted, but what matters to him is what the person does with that spark. “To the extent that I can help or influence anyone in this field to act with integrity and commitment, the reward is their work—what are they doing with it?” he said. “And Leila appears to be well on her way to doing great things. She’s a trusted colleague.”
Following Erin Thompson’s suggestion, Laura Young called Amineddoleh in the fall of 2018. By that time, her research had determined that the marble bust she’d bought was, in fact, one of the items that survived the World War II bombing of the Pompejanum museum. After that, it was looted from the museum, most likely by an American soldier. The museum is located in the Bavarian town of Aschaffenburg, which was also home to American military installations after the war. To this day, however, no one knows exactly how the piece found its way to Austin. Regardless, the bust was unquestionably the property of Bavaria, and what was left for Young and Amineddoleh was to negotiate the terms of its repatriation.
Sometimes in these situations, people will ask a government to pay market value for the return of an artwork, but Amineddoleh saw almost no chance that Germany would do so for a piece that it already owned—many governments refuse to pay anything at all for looted art. An effort to extract such a payment would inevitably involve an expensive legal fight, she counseled Young, and would most likely end in disappointment. “Our conversations at the beginning were about determining what was important to Laura,” Amineddoleh said. “What did she really want?” Young settled on requesting a finder’s fee, and that the piece be shown at a museum in Texas for one year before its return to Bavaria.
At that point, Amineddoleh began her discussions with government officials in Bavaria. These kinds of negotiations are hardly a sprint in the best of times, but thanks to the pandemic and a change in leadership at the Bavarian agency, they slowed to what felt to Young like an agonizing crawl. The months stretched into years, and all the while the bust sat in her home. Over time, it became less a piece of art than a house guest. Young and her husband named the bust Dennis, after a character in the television show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “I’ll be honest with you, I got emotionally attached to this bust,” Young said. Adding to the bond was Young’s awareness that her time with Dennis was limited. “It wasn’t like, ‘If I don’t sell him, I can keep him,’” she said. “This bust is not mine. He’s going to leave my house at some point.” And then there was the simple fact that “it’s a little stressful having something in your house that’s potentially worth more than the house.”
At last, in November 2021, the negotiations were completed and a deal was finalized. Young received a finder’s fee, the size of which is confidential, and an agreement that Dennis would be shown at a museum in San Antonio, about an hour from Austin, for one year. After that, the bust would be returned to Bavaria, to resume at long last its permanent display in the Pompejanum, which has been rebuilt.
It’s unrealistic to think that we’ll ever reach a point where looting ceases to be a problem, said Stephennie Mulder, the University of Texas associate professor who’s been following the bust’s story ever since Laura Young first contacted her for help. “The question then becomes one of how to work to mitigate harm and ensure that collectors can be encouraged to operate ethically and with the least harm to local people,” Mulder said. Amineddoleh’s “model of creative yet equitable solutions to seemingly intractable heritage disputes is innovative and can show us a path forward.”
A few months after the agreement was signed, the San Antonio Museum of Art started making preparations for its temporary exhibition of the bust. “It was really important to me that the bust be displayed in Texas,” Young said. “It hadn’t been seen by anyone for probably decades. It was probably just hidden in someone’s house.” Three staffers drove to Young’s home in Austin and took detailed photographs to record the condition of the piece. Then they brought in a large crate and moving blanket, boxed up the piece, and transported it to a van waiting to carry it to San Antonio. It was sad watching the van pull away, Young said, knowing that Dennis was in the back. “I’m assuming,” she said, “that they drove him very carefully.”
With the San Antonio display of the bust approaching, Amineddoleh broke the news of its remarkable discovery on her firm’s website. From there, stories appeared in nearly every major news outlet, from The New York Times, Washington Post, and TIME magazine to NBC, CBS, and NPR. Young was shocked, and not entirely pleased, to suddenly have become a media star. “I was literally having a panic attack on the phone with the Washington Post reporter!” she said. In May 2022, the museum kicked off its yearlong exhibition with a formal reception. It was there that Young and Amineddoleh met in person for the first time. “It was almost like a family reunion,” Young said. “Leila was amazing through this whole process. It just couldn’t have gone any better.” The piece will be on display at the museum until May.
It’s astonishing to consider how many things had to go just right in order for the bust to survive the museum bombing and then eventually find its way home. Imagine, Amineddoleh said, if someone without Young’s artistic savvy or guiding sense of ethics had purchased the piece. It’s entirely possible that it could have wound up adorning someone’s garden or hallway, its incredible story left untold. Or it could have ended up in the hands of someone who was willing to sell it illegally, despite knowing that it had been plundered. “We’re really lucky that she’s the person that bought it,” Amineddoleh said. “The fact that it ended up in that shop is amazing. The fact that Laura purchased it, the fact that she was so diligent, and the fact that she acted so ethically—the stars definitely aligned when it came to this object.”
It is for precisely these reasons that the Bavarian government agreed to include Young’s name on the plaque that will be attached to the bust once it is shipped back to Germany. Dennis will never again live with her, but he will forever carry a testament to her crucial role in his long and winding return home.