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Feds charge auction owner with selling stolen goods

Federal authorities allege this Korean currency plate issued in 1893 was illegally sold by James Amato, owner of the Oxford-based Midwest Auction Galleries, in April 2010. Photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (click for larger version)
February 20, 2013 - The owner of an Oxford Township auction house is facing federal criminal charges in connection with the sale of a historically significant Korean artifact that was allegedly illegally removed from a palace by a U.S. serviceman 62 years ago.

James Carl Amato, 50, of Mayfield Twp. in Lapeer County, was arrested without incident Feb. 12 by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Amato, who owns Midwest Auction Galleries (925 N. Lapeer Rd.), is facing charges of transportation and sale of stolen goods and making false statements. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Amato was arraigned Feb. 12 in U.S. District Court – Eastern District of Michigan (Southern Division) in Detroit. He was released on a $10,000 personal bond.

If convicted, Amato faces up to five years in federal prison on the false statements charge. Charges of transportation and selling stolen goods each carry a maximum prison sentence of up to 10 years and fines of up to $250,000.

Federal defender Rafael Villarruel was appointed to represent Amato. The attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment by press time.

A two-year federal investigation determined that Amato allegedly sold a 19th century Hojo 10-nyang currency plate for $35,000 to a man named Won Young Youn in April 2010.

Youn was arrested Jan. 9 in New Jersey, on similar charges and the plate is in the U.S. government's custody.

The plate, which was used to print paper money, was issued in 1893 during the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled over the Korean Peninsula from 1392 until the Japanese occupation in 1910. It was Korea's last ruling dynasty and its cultural innovations and achievements continue to influence the country today.

Experts believe the plate is one of three still in existence from the 1890s. The currency plates ushered in modern currency printing methods in Korea, according to the ICE press release.

The currency plate was part of the estate of the late Lionel Hayes, a sergeant in the 10th Marine Division, who allegedly obtained it from the Deoksugung (or Duksoo) Palace – one of the "Five Grand Palaces" built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty – in Seoul during the Korean War in 1951.

Hayes allegedly got the plate and other items after the invading North Korean and Chinese troops were pushed back by U.S. forces.

The above origin of the items was stated in a June 28, 2010 article in The Hankyoreh, an independent daily newspaper in South Korea and on the Midwest Auction Galleries website back in 2010.

In the Feb. 5 criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, it was stated that Hayes' daughter "provided minimal information about how Hayes may have obtained the item, other than she often heard her father talk about the Duksoo Palace."

According to the criminal complaint, Amato was contacted the day before the April 2010 live auction by representatives from both the South Korean Embassy and the U.S. Department of State. The complaint stated Amato was informed the plate may have been illegally obtained from Korea and its sale could constitute a violation of the National Stolen Property Act.

The Oxford Leader published a story about this investigation back in July 2010. At that time, Amato admitted to being contacted the day before the live auction by someone from the South Korean Embassy and this person asked him to pull the Korean artifacts from the block.

Amato originally told the Leader he informed the caller it was too late because items had been selling on-line for two-and-a-half weeks prior to the live auction. Amato never mentioned also being contacted by a representative of the state department that same day.

South Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration contacted HSI Detroit about the currency plate in December 2010.

This entity informed the U.S. agency that "Hojo currency notes were a Korean national heritage item with significant academic and historical value and legitimate export (of such an item) would have been 'hardly likely' as Hojo currency plates were maintained under strict government control," according to the federal criminal complaint.

In April 2012, HSI Detroit issued a customs summons to Midwest Auction Galleries to produce documents related to the auction sale of Hayes' estate. One of the those documents identified a Joo Park, of Flushing, New York, as the winning bidder for the plate. The listed price was $35,000.

A month later, HSI Detroit issued a customs summons to Midwest Auction Galleries to produce records regarding the plate's purchaser. The auction house did not respond, according to the complaint.

In late June 2012, the federal agency issued another customs summons to the auction house to produce the same records as previously requested and testify about the buyer.

Midwest Auction Galleries responded three days later by providing an invoice stating the item was purchased by Weng Liang, of Hunan, China, for $9,990, according to the criminal complaint.

Amato allegedly told an HSI special agent over the phone that the plate had been retrieved by an unidentified associate of the buyer in the U.S. who paid cash.

"Amato also stated it was common practice for Chinese buyers to arrange for associates to pick up items on their behalf and pay cash," the complaint stated.

A few days later, Midwest Auction Galleries provided another invoice for the plate, but this time it was addressed to a Joo Park and the item's price was listed as $35,000.

This information matched the documentation originally provided by Midwest Auction Galleries in April, but not in July. This is the basis for the charge that Amato provided false information, both verbally and in writing, regarding the identity of the plate's purchaser, according to the complaint.

Park was contacted by HSI in November 2012 and, according to the complaint, she admitted to purchasing the plate on behalf of Youn and paying $35,000 for it.

Back when the Leader interviewed Amato in July 2010, he indicated the item from Hayes' estate that fetched the most money was a 17th century Chinese jade twin-handled cup that sold for $10,000.

In a sworn affidavit, Park indicated, a few days after purchasing the plate in the auction, she was contacted by the Korean Consulate in Washington D.C., informed of the investigation and told not to pay the auction house.

In the criminal complaint, Park indicated Youn, whom she described as "very excited and happy," told her "the (plate) was probably stolen from Korea during the Korean war by a U.S. soldier."

"Youn likened the (plate) to winning a lottery because a price could be negotiated with the Korean government as (it) was interested in returning the (plate) to Korea," the complaint stated.

Park claims she contacted Amato and told him about the call from the Korean government. He allegedly threatened to sue her if she did not pay for the plate.

The plate was paid for and Youn personally picked it up from Midwest Auction Galleries 25-30 days after the bidding, according to the complaint.

Following his arrest, Youn told U.S. authorities that after he won the item and had made partial payment, Amato threatened to "blacklist" him if he did not pay the rest and buy the plate.

"Amato also said the plate would be sold to another buyer for double the price Youn offered," the complaint stated.

Youn informed U.S authorities he does not know a person name Weng Liang from Hunan, China.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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