A Closer Look at the Case Against Mousa “Morris” Khouli and the Greco-Roman Coffin

Monday, July 18, 2011
A multiple count indictment publicly released last week implicates Mousa “Morris” Khouli and three others (Joseph A. Lewis, II, Salem Alshdaifat, and Ayman Ramadan) in an antiquities smuggling ring. Khouli is charged with conspiracy to smuggle, conspiracy to commit money laundering, smuggling as well as fraudulent importation and transportation (5 counts), and making false statements (2 counts).  Keep in mind that an indictment is simply a process that brings a person before the court. The government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt before a person may be found guilty.

Those familiar with the case know by now that Khouli is a New York based antiquities and ancient coin dealer. Because he faces more charges than the other named co-conspirators—-nine criminal counts—-and because federal prosecutors looked to Khouli to provide information two years ago, his case bears some examination.

The 17 page federal grand jury indictment recites that Khouli operated a business called Windsor Antiquities (sic), selling items both from his physical location in Manhattan and on the internet. He is alleged to have illegally imported antiquities and to have sold them to a collector whose home is in Virginia. From the available court documents, the specific item that appears to have begun the investigative probe in to Khouli’s activities is a Greco-Roman coffin.

The recently released indictment and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) press releases of July 14, 2011 describe that:

• Khouli sold Egyptian antiquities to Pharma Management Corp. CEO and Virginia collector Jospeh Lewis, II. The objects included the Greco-Roman coffin.

• Khouli bought the Egyptian antiquities from Michigan dealer Salem Alshdaifat of Holyland Numismatics and Dubai dealer Ayman Ramadan of Nafertiti (sic) Eastern Sculptures Trading.

• Around October 30, 2008 Khouli made a bank transfer of $10,000 into Ramadan’s bank account in Dubai. Then Ramadan had the Greco-Roman coffin shipped by air from the United Arab Emirates to JFK International Airport in New York, arriving on November 20, 2008.

• The Greco-Roman coffin was seized from Joseph Lewis’ home by federal agents on July 14, 2011.

• HSI special agents seized almost $80,000 and more than 200 smuggled antiquities from Khouli worth approximately $2.5 million. Other seizures from Khouli's store included a variety of antiquities and thousands of ancient coins valued at $1 million.

Additional unsealed court documents shed further light on the facts alleged in the indictment. Writing in a September 4, 2009 affidavit in support of Mousa Khouli’s arrest, an ICE special agent explained how, around November 2008, he discovered that a particular shipment entered JFK airport in New York. The Customs database told the agent that the shipment was described as “Wood Panels, Antiques of Age Exceeding One Hundred Years.” The database also listed the country of origin as the United Arab Emirates. The agent’s suspicions were aroused because "it is extremely unlikely that antique wood panels would originate in the UAE. The soil is almost entirely sandy . . . ,” he wrote.

Based on this information, the special agent met with Khouli on February 10, 2009. “Khouli then showed me five old, painted wood panels. I asked Khouli where the panels were from and he said they were Egyptian. When asked whether he had any merchandise originating in the UAE, Khouli responded that he sometimes imports from the UAE, but that the UAE is not the country of origin for any of his merchandise.”

Khouli signed a statement for the ICE agent that said that the wood panels did not originate from the UAE; they were imported from the UAE. The special agent noted in the affidavit that Khouli violated the law, particularly where fifteen of twenty imports over a five year period were claimed to have originated from the UAE. The ICE agent recited familiar cultural property law, specifically that the entry of cultural property in the United States in contravention of a foreign cultural patrimony law is punishable by the National Stolen Property Act, referencing United States v. Schultz. The agent also stated that lying about the country of origin on customs documents constitutes a material false statement in violation of the federal criminal code, citing United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold.

The court sealed the government’s affidavit and complaint because the case remained under investigation. Even after authorities arrested Khouli on September 8, 2009 the case remained under seal. Khouli apparently appeared for arraignment on October 22, 2009 as “John Doe” at the request of the US Attorney’s Office, according to now publicly available court documents.

The government charged Khouli in 2009 with smuggling cultural property into the United States. But federal prosecutors wanted Khouli as an informant. A previously sealed prosecution letter to the court dated October 19, 2009 explains: “Khouli has expressed an interest in cooperating proactively against others who deal in stolen cultural property . . . . These crimes are difficult to detect and prove because they are committed by falsifying importation documents and provenances. Khouli’s cooperation is therefore of great value to the government and will not only contribute to the investigation of others who smuggle and deal in stolen cultural property, but will enable the United States government to seize and repatriate stolen cultural property to the countries that own the property under applicable treaties and patrimony laws.”

The prosecution on December 16, 2009 moved to dismiss the criminal case against Khouli, perhaps for the purpose of utilizing Khouli as a cooperating witness but this information is unknown for certain. In May 2011, however, Khouli and the three co-defendants were indicted. The indictment remained under seal until last week. And on July 14, 2011, Khouli posted a $250,000 secured appearance bond.

According to the records of the New York Department of State, Division of Corporations, Khouli’s business was actually known as Windsor Antiques, Inc. Created on September 28, 1995, the public records show that the business dissolved on December 27, 2010. Khouli was listed as the CEO, with an address in New York, NY and a principal office located in Brooklyn. A new company, Palmyra Heratige (sic), Inc., emerged on May 28, 2010 according to the corporation division’s records, listing an address located at the Manhattan Arts and Antiques Center. Khouli is associated with both Windsor Antiques and Palmyra Heratige (sic), Inc.

Although the Palmyra Heratige (sic) web site is down, a Yahoo! search revealed the following cached web autobiography as of July 11, 2011 (http://www.vcoins.com/palmyraheritage/store/info.asp?page=AboutUs):

“I am Morris Khouli. I moved to New York City in 1992 with my family and opened a gallery in New York City in 1995. My father had a gallery in Damascus for 35 Years, and he learned the business from my Grandfather who was in the business as well. I am the third generation in this business. Thanks to my dad, he taught me the business and I learned to love ancient coins and antiquities ever since I was a little boy.

Many collectors and dealers know me since I do a lot of shows in New York, California, Maryland, Florida, Illinois, and the ANA show, wherever it is since 1993. You may visit my gallery in the heart of Manhattan in the beautiful Manhattan Art and Antiques Center. We are open to the public Monday through Friday 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Located at 1050 Second Avenue between 55 and 56 streets Gallery Number 16 New York NY 10022 Tel 212-3191077 and fax 212-3191169.

We guarantee all of our items to be authentic and if for any reason you are not happy with the item, you can return it for a full refund. Try us--you will be happy.

Thank you,
Morris Khouli”

Palmyra Heratige (sic) apparently sold various types of antiquities. The Manhattan Art and Antique Center lists a web page for Palmyra Heritage at http://www.the-maac.com/Streamline?p=viewPage.jsp&id=61&gid=123. It displays two ancient coins, an Apulian amphora, a Roman bust, and an Illyrian bronze helmet.

As the case continues through the federal court system some important questions that perhaps may be answered include:

• how the Greco-Roman coffin was originally acquired and who facilitated its acquisition and transfer;

• who packed and transported the coffin to the UAE, how was it done, and which countries did the coffin pass through;

• which foreign government authorities failed to detect the movement of the coffin and why;

• how much money was paid for the coffin and how was the money transferred;

• whether the coffin was conserved or restored and who did the work if it was;

• how the coffin got from JFK airport to Lewis’ home, who packed it, and who transported it;

• why HSI waited two years to seize the Greco-Roman coffin (which is a good decision if it served to further HSI’s investigation, of course); and

• who are the unnamed co-conspirators in this case?