Monday, 4 December 2017

Insurance Company Tries to Block Ancient Sculpture’s Return to Iran

In an object lesson for the art insurance world, a sculpture that the owners expect to recoup may turn out to have no commercial value (Allan Woods, 'Courts in Quebec, New York asked to block ancient sculpture’s return to Iran Toronto Star, Dec. 3, 2017). The 20-by-21-centimetre fragment of a Persepolis limestone bas-relief sculpture once displayed by a Montreal museum has been discussed in this blog before. Readers will know that it is now caught between authorities in the U.S., Canada and Iran after it was seized by police at the European Fine Arts Fair in New York City in October of this year ('European'?). Attempts are being made by Iran to reclaim this item, hacked out of a wall  in Persepolis by persons unknown in the 1930s. This case is complicated by the unusual circumstances of its most recent ownership history. It was stolen from Montreal museum, the Museum then received the insurance money which I guess it then spent, so when the object was found by the police, the insurance company took ownership of it as one of their assets. What then follows is interesting:
Lawyers for AXA Insurance Company have now asked a Quebec judge to rule that ownership of the sculpture was properly transferred from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to AXA, which then had every legal right to sell it to a British art dealer. A request filed with the court states that Rupert Wace purchased it from AXA after the piece was recovered by Canadian police in 2014. It had been stolen several years earlier from the Montreal museum. Wace then sold a share of the sculpture to another British art dealer, Sam Fogg. “Refusing to grant the … orders would have the effect of allowing the relief to be sent to Iran without a proper determination of ownership,” says the Quebec court request, which was first reported by La Presse in Montreal. 
Yet they apparently insured it for a certain value without a proper determination of ownership (an ownership which they are now finding affects its value quite considerably). The Quebec Superior Court two weeks ago issued an order that the artefact should not be repatriated by the US to Iran before courts (the Canadian courts) can rule on who is now the legal custodian of the object.
Superior Court Judge Babak Barin [...] sent a copy of the ruling to the judge in the U.S. case, in the hopes that the Canadian injunction would be respected until such time as ownership of the piece of art could be determined.
The Toronto Star detail its collecting history, 'how the sculpture got to where it is today, in the possession of the New York Supreme Court, is a colourful tale that spans decades':
It isn’t clear who took it from Iran in 1936, but the Quebec court file includes the typewritten invoice issued in 1951 when Paul Mallon, a New York-based Frenchman, sold the piece to Frederick Cleveland Morgan, president of the Art Association of Montreal, for the sum of $1,005. It was then housed in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and regularly exhibited over a period of 60 years until Sept. 3, 2011, when it was stolen, according to Danièle Archambault, a museum archivist, whose affidavit was submitted in support of the insurance company’s ownership claim. In September 2012, AXA paid out $1.18 million (Canadian) to the museum under the terms of its insurance policy. But the sculpture was recovered 16 months later, in January 2014, when the RCMP in Alberta and the Sûreté du Québec tracked it to an apartment in Edmonton. The condo owner, Simon Metke, told CBC News after the raid that he had bought the sculpture for $1,400 from a friend of a friend in Montreal, unaware of its true origins. “I’m really glad that I was able to protect this thing and look after it, and it sort of feels like it may have come to me to be protected so that it didn’t get destroyed or lost,” Metke said. Lawyers in Quebec claim that the sculpture was legally imported to Canada in 1951 before the country signed on to UNESCO agreements dealing with the trade of cultural heritage artifacts. Even if the sale was not legal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts became the legal owner under Quebec’s Civil Code after being in possession of the sculpture for three years, the court filing argues. 
The Star continues: 'Ii may take some time to arrange an initial court hearing in Montreal on the requested ownership ruling. A followup hearing in New York on the request to block the repatriation of the sculpture is scheduled for Dec. 18'.

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