Joseph A. “Joe” Lewis II heard his housekeeper scream and looked outside to see his yard swarming with federal agents.
He had no idea on that summer day in 2011 that he was about to become ensnared in what authorities would describe as a groundbreaking case of cultural artifact smuggling.
The successful Chesterfield County businessman, who developed a nationally recognized cosmetic skin-care brand and is a major collector of Egyptian antiquities, soon found himself facing smuggling conspiracy and money laundering charges as part of what the government termed the “first ever” dismantling of a cultural property smuggling network in the U.S.
Three other people were charged, including a New York antiquities dealer from whom Lewis had purchased several artifacts. It was that relationship that spelled trouble for Lewis.
“This thing was devastating,” said Lewis, an Eagle Scout, chemist, arts patron, entrepreneur and collector of everything from Egyptian artifacts to museum-class insect specimens and seashells.
But Lewis, who steadfastly maintained his innocence and was determined to clear his name, fought back in what he described as a classic case of David versus Goliath.
“It was the fight of my life,” said Lewis, 58, who has made a name for himself in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic skin-care business over the past 30 years.
After 2½ years of legal wrangling and a seven-figure cost for his defense, a federal judge last month dismissed all charges against Lewis in New York — one year after prosecutors and Lewis’ attorneys agreed to a 12-month “deferred prosecution agreement.”
The agreement required Lewis to forfeit several artifacts he purchased that were seized in the investigation, provide documentation to a U.S. customs agent if he imported any other artifacts during the 12-month period and, finally, to stay out of trouble. The agreement essentially absolved Lewis of any responsibility or liability for the importation of the seized items or their false provenance.
It was perhaps the best deal Lewis could hope for short of full exoneration by a trial jury — which Lewis said would have drained his bank account even more.
Lewis said he never gave up, even when the federal judge who presided over his case told him that 95 percent of the people who pass through his courtroom are guilty as charged. Lewis told the judge he was among the 5 percent, but acknowledged he had “a lot of convincing to do.”
“I knew I was innocent,” Lewis said. “So the thought never had entered my mind … that I wouldn’t ultimately prevail if the justice system serves its purpose — even if it goes to trial. There’s not 12 people that you can find anywhere on the planet, if they are going to sit there and hear my story, that will tell me that I’m guilty. I was totally convinced of that.”
Lewis was the last of three defendants to have their cases adjudicated — a fourth was living in the United Arab Emirates and never found — in a highly publicized case out of New York. The authorities alleged that Lewis, as a collector of artifacts, conspired with the others to smuggle valuable Egyptian antiquities into the U.S.
When the indictments were announced in July 2011, prosecutors called the smuggling arrests a “groundbreaking case for Homeland Security Investigations.”
But as the cases made their way through the courts, the results were less grandiose and nobody went to prison. They each initially faced up to 20 years behind bars.
The defendant described by authorities as the most culpable — Mousa “Morris” Khouli, who operated Windsor Antiquities in Manhattan — received a one-year suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty in April 2012 to smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the U.S. and making a false statement to law enforcement.
Another defendant, Salem Alshdaifat, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of being an accessory after the fact in aiding Khouli and was fined $1,000.
Aside from Khouli, Lewis said he never met — nor had he ever heard of — the other two defendants.
Authorities have suggested that federal prosecutors didn’t want to expend any more government resources in Lewis’ case, largely as a result of the diminished outcomes involving the other defendants. The prosecution’s understanding of Lewis’ alleged role also evolved in his favor.
In a defense motion early in the case seeking dismissal of the charges, Lewis’ attorneys argued that he had no motive to break the law. He already possessed dozens of Egyptian coffins comparable to the ones in question and had an “ironclad, money-back guarantee” if the artifacts did not clear U.S. customs.
His attorneys also argued that Lewis “indisputably” was not involved in the importation process, was not consulted about that process, and did now know or communicate with any defendant aside from Khouli, who sold the artifacts to Lewis in the U.S.
Further, the defense said prosecutors could not present any witnesses or documents that showed Lewis did anything wrong or knew others were doing something wrong.
“The entire case against Mr. Lewis will come down to inferences that the government will ask the jury to draw from a handful of emails — inferences that are not supportable, but even if they were, would be no more compelling than inferences of innocence,” his attorneys wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Orenstein, who prosecuted the case, declined to talk publicly about Lewis’ case or discuss the terms of his deferred prosecution agreement.
Prosecutors sought and the court agreed to defer prosecution of Lewis on Jan. 3, 2013, with a 12-month deferral period ending Jan. 4 of this year. Four days later, a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York dismissed the charges with prejudice — meaning prosecutors cannot reinstate the case, court records show.
Lewis said he’s always strived to purchase antiquities that were legally imported with documented provenance. In 2009, after a fellow collector and friend recommended Khouli — the arts dealer in New York — Lewis arranged to purchase several artifacts that Khouli advised were for sale from his father’s collection.
The items included Egyptian coffins, a set of Egyptian boats and limestone figures.
Lewis said he believed Khouli to be legitimate after establishing that his family had a 50-year history in the antiquities business and that Khouli had some 15,000 positive reviews from selling items on eBay. “I talked with a few other people who knew him, and there weren’t any problems with him,” Lewis said.
After placing a deposit on some artifacts in 2009 and waiting months to receive them, Lewis flew to New York to question Khouli about the delay — only to learn that Khouli had been arrested, Lewis said. Alarmed, Lewis asked Khouli whether there was anything wrong with the items he purchased.
Lewis said it was then that Khouli said the artifacts were coming from an arts dealer in Dubai, and not from his father’s collection as he had originally claimed. But Khouli reassured Lewis that everything was legal, Lewis said.
Lewis said he and his attorney then voluntarily went to U.S. customs about his purchases and offered his cooperation. “We had communicated with them, offered to give them the pieces,” he said.
“I didn’t think I let my guard down,” Lewis added, “but obviously I got involved with the wrong guy — and I paid for it.”
Although Lewis said the federal indictments took their toll on his personal and professional life, his business partners, friends and associates in the cultural arts community — including major auction houses from which he purchased artifacts — stuck with him and offered support, he said.
“They never questioned my integrity,” Lewis said. “They said, ‘What can we do to help?’ ”
Lewis noted with some irony that less than three weeks before he was charged, he and his wife, Sofi, had received the Woolford B. Baker Service Award from Emory University for their antiquities contributions and support of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, which is on the Atlanta campus.
Alex Nyerges, director and CEO of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, said he believed in Lewis “100 percent” from the beginning. The museum is still displaying nine Egyptian artifacts from Lewis’ collection, and two other major museums also are showing his items.
“He’s a very astute and determined collector,” Nyerges said. “But he is also someone with great scruples and understands the intricacies of ancient materials and works that are legally excavated and imported. He’s very careful to stay clear of things that would be inappropriate.”
Lewis said his business has rebounded from the fallout of the charges, which resulted in the loss of some major contracts. “Every one of those relationships is rock-solid today,” said Lewis, adding that he recently finalized a major skin-care product deal that soon will be announced.
He dissolved Pharma Management Corp., which at the time of the indictments was the management arm for various other related enterprises, so he and his partners could focus attention on their primary branding, selling, marketing and research company, U.S. CosmeceuTechs, of which Lewis is president and CEO.
Lewis’ passion for collecting extends well beyond ancient Egyptian sarcophagi and mummy bead sets dating back several thousand years, and it is that side of him that helps explain his enthusiasm and drive. He says he never does anything halfway.
He also holds a vast collection of insects containing unusual specimens from around the world that he meticulously mounts and catalogs himself — an interest dating to his years as a Boy Scout. His penchant for collecting sea shells — he has thousands — is nearly as great.
Lewis said one of the most troubling aspects of his legal fight was being maligned in the media — particularly among archeologist bloggers who railed against him as a collector.
“They are against private collecting; they think it’s a sin,” said Lewis, adding that some critics took the opportunity to denounce him, using the charges as evidence that the “world is being looted” of ancient cultural property.
“I think most museums will tell you that collectors like me are important to the protection of cultural property,” Lewis said.
Items that were bought generations ago but are now sitting in somebody’s basement “rotting away” and no longer valued by the current descendants are bought by dealers and collectors who have relationships with museums, Lewis explained.
“I, more than anybody, know that if looted antiquities flood the marketplace, then it devalues everything that I’m doing for museums and everything that the cultural property protectors of the world are doing.”