Defamed as ISIS Conduit, Antiquities Dealer Says

MANHATTAN (CN) — With the Islamic State group deriving its funding from looted antiquities, the Wall Street Journal published an article linking the illicit trade to a prominent art family with galleries in New York and Geneva.

Blasting the allegations as an “outrageous libel” on Monday, the dealer at the heart of that story filed a defamation lawsuit against the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper.

Hicham Aboutaam, the owner of the Manhattan-based Electrum gallery, sued the Journal’s corporate parent Dow Jones and Company in New York County Supreme Court.

“For months in early 2017, The Wall Street Journal made clear that it was relying on false information and non-existent or unreliable sources to cobble together a story purporting to link plaintiff’s business activities to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” his 30-page complaint states.

“After ignoring months of assiduous attempts to guide and correct the reporters’ misconceptions, misunderstandings, and incorrect assumptions, the Journal published a prominently featured article that – though it revealed no links between plaintiff and any antiquities that were bought or sold to support ISIS – nonetheless purported to link plaintiff with ISIS funding through defamatory statements and manipulative juxtaposition of information about plaintiff with unrelated information about ISIS funding activities,” Aboutaam continues in his complaint.

The Journal’s reporters Benoit Faucon and Georgi Kantchev – who are not named as defendants in the lawsuit – shared a byline on the article titled “Prominent Art Family Entangled in ISIS Antiquities-Looting Investigations,” which was published on May 31.

But Faucon reached out to Aboutaam months earlier, seeking comment for an article that he anticipated would involve “scrutiny over your operations and whether artifacts looted under ISIS’ watch could have ended up in your hands,” according to the lawsuit.

Describing Faucon’s questions as “inflammatory,” Aboutaam said the Jan. 31 email asked Phoenix Ancient Art – the Swiss gallery owned by his brother, Ali Aboutaam – to respond to “unattributed, vague, and false” allegations.

According to the lawsuit, Faucon wrote that the article had been slated to run on Feb. 3, but that deadline was pushed back after Phoenix laid out the errors embedded in the reporter’s questions.

“We have never sold anything to [that individual] and we are unaware of any such scrutiny,” Phoenix responded, according to the lawsuit. “We can strongly confirm that what you heard is false and we would like to be given the chance to defend ourselves from this slander.”

Aboutaam says the February deadline came and went before Faucon checked in again on March 3, again asking “extremely slanted” questions on the same topic.

This time, according to the lawsuit, Faucon spoke to Phoenix’s publicist before sending a third round of queries to the gallery at the end of the month.

Follow-up correspondence from this point on went through legal counsel, before the Journal ran a story long on innuendo and short on evidence according to Aboutaam.

“Plaintiff’s standing in the international antiquities world, where he had previously been regarded as a leading dealer with a reputation for integrity, has also been deeply damaged,” the complaint states.

Aboutaam demands unspecified damages on two claims of defamation.

He is represented by Richard Emory from the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

Dow Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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