Sunday, 29 October 2017

U.S. court suspends auction of ancient Iranian relief

According to the Teheran Times, a U.S. court has suspended an auction of a bas-relief that was scheduled to go under the hammer at Rupert Wace Ancient Art in London on Friday,
“A New York court prosecutor has voted to seize a treasured piece of a bas-relief that depicts an Achaemenid soldier, which had been stolen from Persepolis decades ago prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution,” said Ebrahim Shaqaqi, the director of legal affairs at the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization. “Legal follow-ups are underway to first prove that the relic belongs to Iran and finally repatriate it,” Shaqaqi added, without providing further detail on the U.S. court.
See also the article in the New York Times (James C. McKinley, 'Ancient Limestone Relief Is Seized at European Art Fair', Oct 29, 2017). So now I know why my tracking software told me that Sotheby's was doing a search on my blog over the weekend for my posts on this thing, which had been stolen from a Canadian museum and then recovered, and then being traded for the insurance money. Now we know what happened to it. I'll be interested to follow the further development of this story. Readers will know that when it was stolen, I did not think it came from Persepolis at all, but was pretty sure it's a fake. [UPDATE: Since then Rainer Schreg has pointed me to his excellent text 'Persischer Krieger mehrfach geklaut und jetzt beschlagnahmt'Archaeologik 2. November 2017 which shows I was mistaken. He has identified what is certainly the same fragment in situ in Persepolis on the the eastern staircase of the Apadana in 1933. Now we can see what was done to portableise this head, hack it out of the wall and then bash it about to make it transportable. The collector who bought it should have been ashamed of himself].


David Knell said...

The bas-reliefs of soldiers at Persepolis vary. For instance.

David Knell said...

If the Getty image is of the same wall (seried ranks of soldiers appear in several locations on the central building of Persepolis), it is certainly not the same section of wall shown in the NYT/Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago image. As you noted, the soldiers are quite different (e.g. hands not shown, no border to shield, etc.).

However, as you say, it will be interesting to see if Iran or the Oriental Institute possess somewhat more conclusive evidence that the relief was still in situ in 1936 than this blurry photograph (or the selection of non-matching images on their website). Various artefacts have been pillaged from the site for centuries.

The relief was accessioned by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the early 1950s. Funny that Iran has left it for well over half a century before saying anything. But the US is on a righteous grabfest of repatriation at the moment - I suspect spurred more by political manoeuvring than anything else - and there's little chance of resisting that.

I fondly remember gawping in wonder at the relief in Montreal as a child - profoundly thankful that at least I could marvel at a tiny piece of Persepolis even though it was unlikely I would ever be able to see the site itself. I wish the MMFA had bought it back from the insurance company when it was recovered after the theft.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, you are right, these are two different bits of wall. Not only Iran has not raised the issue earlier, but neither has Chicago.

David Knell said...

"Not only Iran has not raised the issue earlier, but neither has Chicago."


Rainer Schreg said...

It's possible to identify the piece in 1933 photographs at Persepolis: see

Paul Barford said...

Many thanks Rainer, you are right. Your producing that photo makes things very easy now. It is a shame Chicago did not do this footwork when the thing first went on public display in the 1950s.

David Knell said...

Well, that high-resolution close-up of the NYT/Oriental Institute image (just to the left of my cropped version) does indeed provide conclusive evidence. From a US legal viewpoint, I imagine the 1970 UNESCO Convention will play no part; I suspect the US will muster the same law used in the McClain/Schultz cases: the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) of 1934. Since the law is not retroactive, I'm guessing the first OI photograph of 1933 may not be enough but the second OI photograph showing the relief still in situ in 1934 should just scrape through as evidence of theft after the law came into effect.

Paul Barford said...

Well, what will happen is the dealer will not contest. How could anyone claim to be a reputable dealer but be seen to trade in bits so obviously knocked off as this one now turns out to be due to Rainer doing the footwork?

David Knell said...

I also doubt the dealer will contest but there does need to be a law in place to justify the seizure legally. It's a pity that both the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Oriental Institute didn't investigate years ago.

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