Art Dealer Can’t Sue Over Stigma From ISIS Report

MANHATTAN (CN) — After The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations,” the business of two brothers and long-time dealers took a predictable nosedive.

Nearly two years later, the criminal investigation by Swiss authorities has not produced charges against either Ali or Hicham Aboutaam, but an unrelated probe has touched at least one of their inventories.

In August, the Art Newspaper reported that a Swiss prosecutor there seized some 11,000 antiquities belonging to Ali, only to return about 5,000 items. None of the seized bounty is alleged to have been connected to the Islamic State.

Only one of the brothers – Hicham, the owner of Phoenix Ancient Art’s exclusive agent, Electrum – sued the Journal’s corporate parent Dow Jones two years ago over what he labeled a “manipulative” report. The news organization stood by the investigation. 

Despite his sympathy for Aboutaam, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Robert Kalish found Tuesday that the article accurately reported on the probes against him.

“It may be that being subject to an investigation by law enforcement carries a stigma,” Kalish noted. 

Aboutaam asserted that the taint of association with a report on terrorist-looted antiquities caused sales at his gallery to plummet by 96 percent. 

“By no means does this court’s decision seek to undermine the serious consequences that sometimes follow a news organization’s decision to publish details of an ongoing investigation by law enforcement,” the judge continued. “However, the decision to truthfully report on an ongoing law enforcement investigation is ultimately a question of journalistic judgment. Unless the reporting on such an investigation is materially false or affirmatively creates false suggestions, it is not for the courts to question an editorial judgment to report on an ongoing investigation.”

The Journal’s spokesman Steve Severinghaus said he was gratified that the case had been dismissed.

In a phone interview, Aboutaam’s attorney Richard Emery said: “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the decision, and we’re intending to appeal.

“But the real story here is that my client was very seriously damaged by a scurrilous article,” Emery, the founding partner of the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, added.

On top of the Swiss investigation, French, Belgian and U.S. authorities also probed Aboutaam. The judge noted that readers may have jumped to the conclusion that the international suspicion cast upon Aboutaam suggests that he is guilty.

“However, this court — which must uphold the constitutional protection that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law — will not endorse such a reading as reasonable,” Kalich wrote.

Crucially, Kalich found that the Journal did not endorse a view on the matter.

“Nowhere in the article is there an accusation or a suggestion that plaintiff’s family has actually done what they are being investigated for,” he wrote. “The article only discusses that the family is being investigated.”

Asked about the current state of his client’s sales, Emery replied: “Luckily, they’re creeping back up again.”

The Journal has reported that the Islamic State group, also called ISIS, makes as much as $100 million annually from antiquities trafficking out of Iraq and Syria.

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