A successful Chesterfield County businessman who heads a nationally recognized pharmaceutical and cosmetic skin-care business was one of four men indicted in New York this week in what authorities describe as an organized criminal ring that smuggled Egyptian artifacts into the U.S.
Joseph A. Lewis II, 54, president and CEO of Chesterfield-based Pharma Management Corp., was charged in indictments unsealed Wednesday with conspiring to smuggle Egyptian antiquities into the U.S. and conspiring to launder money in the furtherance of the smuggling operation.
Among the allegations, federal authorities say Lewis, a collector, engaged in a scheme with the other three defendants from October 2008 until November 2009 to smuggle items such as a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a nesting set of three Egyptian sarcophagi, a set of Egyptian funerary boats and Egyptian limestone figures.
The indictment says Lewis purchased the items from two antiquities dealers in New York and wired funds from the U.S. to foreign banks.
"Each of these antiquities was exported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates and smuggled into the United States using a variety of illegal methods intended to avoid detection and scrutiny by U.S. Customs & Border Protection," the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn said in a statement.
The indictment also alleges the men made false claims to U.S. Customs about the origins of the artifacts and their value, and provided misleading descriptions of the contents on shipping labels and customs paperwork.
On Wednesday, U.S customs agents executed a search warrant at Lewis' home in the 8900 block of Sawdust Trail near Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield and recovered the Greco-Roman sarcophagus, the funerary boats and the limestone figures. Federal authorities have filed asset forfeiture paperwork to permanently confiscate many of the items they have recovered from Lewis and the other defendants.
Neither Lewis nor his New York attorney could be reached for comment Friday.
Lewis, a chemist, has made a name for himself in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic skin-care business over the past 30 years.
According to a biographical sketch on his company's website, Lewis is considered an industry expert in the field of cosmeceuticals and was a pioneer in what's known as alpha-hydroxy acids technology — a class of chemical compounds used in the skin rejuvenation and cosmetics industry — and introduced hundreds of formulations containing AHAs into the marketplace.
One of his company's more well-known labels is PRIORI, a line of skin-care products described in company literature as an innovative source of anti-aging treatments.
Lewis and his business partner have presented their anti-aging technologies "at the largest dermatology meetings in the world" and in top peer-reviewed medical journals, according to the website.
In one industry publication, Lewis was described glowingly as "a woman's anti-aging secret weapon."
His interest in ancient artifacts has been noted in biographical sketches of him in industry publications. In one such profile in Spa Finder Lifestyle, a publication associated with a spa and wellness company, the author writes that Lewis and his wife, Sofi, collect Egyptian antiquities, particularly mummy cases, coffin boards and afterlife statuary such as scarabs.
The article says the couple has loaned or given several pieces to Atlanta's Michael C. Carlos Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. "Their Richmond, Va., home also contains dozens of flat files filled with bugs and butterflies meticulously classified by genus," the story says.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has eight objects on loan from the Joseph A. Lewis Collection, "all of which, to the best of our knowledge, was purchased by the owner and lent to the VMFA in good faith," Alex Nyerges, the museum's director and CEO, said in a statement.
Nyerges said the Egyptian antiquities are on view in VMFA's recently reinstalled Egyptian galleries.
Lewis' arrest is not his first brush with federal authorities in connection with smuggling. Nearly 20 years ago, in August 1991, he was charged in U.S. District Court here with illegally importing Australian wildlife into the U.S.
Then vice president for Herald Pharmacal Inc., Lewis was convicted of conspiring to important endangered Australian reptiles — shingle-back skinks and bearded dragon lizards — and sentenced to 30 days of strict home detention.
He also was fined $7,500, placed on probation for five years and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service.
The sentence could have been worse. Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after having been indicted on a felony charge. His attorney, Michael Morchower, was credited with bargaining down the charge.
According to court documents, in the mid-1980s Lewis ran a business from the basement of his home, called Universal Select Animals, that was "engaged in buying, selling and trading in exotic, rare and protected reptiles." The business traded as Paradise Pets.
Federal authorities alleged that Lewis and two co-defendants in California shipped live reptiles into the country by using regular mail parcels. The contents of the packages were falsely labeled to avoid the scrutiny of U.S. customs officials, authorities said.
The judge who sentenced Lewis told him he did irreparable harm to the environment by dealing in exotic and endangered species.
Lewis was released Thursday from federal custody on $250,000 bond. His next court appearance is not yet listed in federal court records.
Federal authorities called the smuggling arrests a "groundbreaking case for Homeland Security Investigations."
"It is the first time an alleged cultural property network has been dismantled within the United States," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent in Charge James T. Hayes in a statement. "In addition to smuggling cultural property, this case also focuses on significant money laundering activity. This is notable because the illicit sale of cultural property is the third-most profitable black market industry following narcotics and weapons trafficking."