For years, looted antiquities have been a law enforcement priority, not only because the smuggling of ancient artifacts damages the cultural heritage of their countries of origin, but because illicit sales have sometimes financed the operation of drug gangs or terror organizations.
But prosecutors say Mehrdad Sadigh, a New York antiquities dealer whose Sadigh Gallery has operated for decades in the shadow of the Empire State Building, decided not to go to the trouble of acquiring ancient items.
He made bogus copies instead, they say, creating thousands of phony antiquities in a warren of offices just off his display area and then marketing them to unsophisticated and overeager collectors.
“For many years, this fake antiquities mill based in midtown Manhattan promised customers rare treasures from the ancient world and instead sold them pieces manufactured on-site in cookie-cutter fashion,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., said in a statement after Mr. Sadigh was arrested earlier this month.
Mr. Sadigh has pleaded not guilty to charges of scheming to defraud, grand larceny, criminal possession of a forged instrument, forgery and criminal simulation.
Among the people he sold to, according to prosecutors, were undercover federal investigators who bought a gold pendant depicting the death mask of Tutankhamen and a marble portrait head of an ancient Roman woman — paying $4,000 for each. Those sales became the basis for a visit to the gallery in August by members of the district attorney’s office and Homeland Security investigations, who said they found hundreds of fake artifacts displayed on shelves and inside glass cases. Thousands more, they said, were found in the rooms behind the gallery — including scarabs, statuettes and spear heads in differing stages of preparation.
Matthew Bogdanos, the chief of the district attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, said in an interview that the visit revealed a sort of assembly-line process that seemed designed to distress and otherwise alter mass-produced items of recent vintage so they would appear aged. Investigators, he said, found varnish, spray paints, a belt sander and mudlike substances of different hues and consistencies, among other tool and materials.
Gary Lesser, a lawyer for Mr. Sadigh, declined to comment on Tuesday.
The district attorney’s office said that Mr. Sadigh appeared to be among the biggest purveyors of fake artifacts in the country based on the longevity of his business, the number of items seized from his gallery and his “substantial financial gains.”
Mr. Sadigh had operated his gallery for decades, advertising it on its website as “a family-owned art gallery specializing in ancient artifacts and coins from around the world.”
Established in 1978 as a small mail-order company, the website said that in 1982 the gallery moved to a suite of offices on an upper floor of a building at Fifth Avenue and East 31st Street.
From his location there, Mr. Sadigh offered for sale items that he said were ancient Anatolian, Babylonian, Byzantine, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian and Sumerian. The gallery’s website featured a blog on antiquities and testimonials from satisfied customers. Google reviews posted online were filled with accounts from clients, some of whom said they had been shopping there for years and many of whom mentioned personal service they appreciated.
Among the items listed for sale on the website in late 2020 and early 2021 were 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).
“All of our antiquities are guaranteed authentic,” the site stated.
Mr. Sadigh came to the attention of investigators pursuing other dealers involved in trafficking looted antiquities who complained, Mr. Bogdanos said, 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 not a sidewalk peddler of cheap knockoffs, but someone “too big to not investigate.”
Among the items Mr. Bogdanos recognized in the gallery was a copy of an 11th-century ceramic Khmer sculpture of a Buddha; the original had been seized by the district attorney’s office in a separate case. Other items in the gallery appeared to be modeled after objects that had been stolen from the Iraq Museum, thefts Mr. Bogdanos had a hand in investigating while serving as a Marine colonel in Iraq in 2003.
(Mr. Bogdanos led an effort to recover thousands of items taken by looters during the fall of Baghdad.)
After 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 like a sarcophagus valued at $50,000, a cylinder seal valued at $40,000 and a statue of the goddess Artemis valued at $25,000, all suspected of being fakes.
Despite his positive reviews online, Mr. Sadigh had previously been associated with a dispute over the authenticity of items he had sold.
In 2019, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa canceled a planned visiting exhibition after Bjorn Anderson, an art history professor at the University of Iowa, said that “the majority” of its items appeared to be fakes once sold by the Sadigh gallery
“I don’t know anything about this,” Mr. Sadigh said in response, according to The West Branch Times, which reported the cancellation in 2019.