Friday, 23 February 2018

Israeli Collector Sues Turkish Cultural Ministry Over Roman Statue

Side, Turkey
An Israeli art collector asked a U.S. judge Wednesday to declare that he has a valid title to an ancient Roman statue of an Anatolian goddess claimed by the Turkish cultural ministry. [...] collector Eliezer Levin says Turkey brought a claim of ownership for his 2-foot-tall marble statue of Cybele in 2016. Levin had consigned the statue for sale that year to an auction house in Tel Aviv, which exported it to the United States, where it still remains. [...] Levin claims that U.S., Israeli and international law attest to his good title. [...] Levin says he bought his statue of Cybele in 1987 from the auction house Matsa in Tel Aviv, which traced the statue back to the 1st century A.D. and listed its provenance as “from the collection of the late general Moshe Dayan, sold to a private collector.” [...] “The plinth bears a dedicatory inscription in Greek reading: ‘Asklepiades son of Hermius from the city of Side the ‘Mother of the Twelve Gods’ has dedicated as a vow’
(Adam Klasfeld, 'Israeli Collector Sues Turkish Cultural Ministry Over Roman Statue',  Courthouse News Service February 22, 2018). The item was bought by Levin in 1987 [so after the date when Turkey became a State Party to the UNESCO Convention, April 21, 1981]. \

Levin purchased the Cybele in 1987 at a public auction in Israel.
12. The public auction was held by Matsa Co. Ltd (“Matsa”), an Israeli auction house founded in 1970, and the Archaeological Center in Israel, which was founded in 1979 and licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (“IAA”) to sell antiquities. 13. From October 29 to November 2, 1987, Matsa and the Archaeological Center exhibited the Cybele at Beit Asia, 4 Weizmann St., Tel Aviv, Israel. 14. On November 3, 1987, at the same location as the exhibition, Matsa and the Archaeological Center held a public auction that included the Cybele. 15. The auction catalogue bears the seal of the Antiquities Dealers Association, an association that aims to “protect [ ] honest collectors and the legitimate trade in antiquities from being tainted by those who operate illegally.” See
The argument is apparently being made that the 'reputation' of the dealers makes any verification by the buyer of their good title superfluous. But in fact this is irrelevant, No mention is made of any actual documentation that the object really had come from the Dayan collection. Dayan died 16 October 1981 and a 2003 article talks of his involvement in antiquities smuggling and, more importantly, the public debate in Israel about Dayan’s illicit digging after the display of his collection in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in April 1985 (op. cit. p33). How can this be a 'good faith' purchase of an undocumented item from part of his collection not much more than a year later?

Matsa C. Ltd (apart from being a mining company) is listed here as 'small general'  (which may have a bearing on the question of whether they in fact specialise in the sale of 'property of the kind of the thing sold' -first century Roman sculptures from Turkey - see below) and they seem to be in some mysterious way to be linked with 'Robert Deutsch, Archaeological Center. Ancient Coins and Antiquities'. 

As additional justification of his claim, Levin cites that the statue was exhibited at the Eretz Israel Museum 20 years ago in Tel Aviv, and 'three Israeli agencies sponsored the exhibit, which was shown inside one of the country’s largest museums'. Levin for some reason loaned it to the museum for display in 1992. When it ceased to be on display and where it went after that is not given n the court documents. The Museum had a responsibility to ensure that it was not showing illicitly-obtained items, that it failed to document that it had not done so can in no way be used in a US trial as evidence of licitness .

In 'early 2016', the item was consigned to an unnamed auction house in Tel Aviv, and here's where it becomes complicated. The auction house for some reason decided to send it to New York for auction and immediately (?) applied for an export licence. The licence was received on Tuesday 23rd February 2016, and the very next day the statue was on its way to New York, while just a few days later, on or about Tuesday March 1st, 2016, IAA was notified by Interpol that Turkey suspected that the Cybele was taken out of Turkey illegally. The artefact had been exported just in the nick of time before that notification. 'Phew', eh?  How can the IAA explain that?  The two (?) auction houses involved in this transfer of location are not named  The sale was stopped on or about 16th April 2016 on notifiocation that the object may have left Turkey in an illicit manner.

The object remains in New York and now a court has to decide its ownership, not by Israeli antiquities legislation, for the object has now been removed from Israeli jurisdiction, but by Israeli property law ('Section 34 of Israeli Sale Law 1968'):
Where any movable property is sold by a person who carries on the sale of property of the kind of the thing sold, and the sale is made in the ordinary course of his business, ownership passes to the buyer free of every charge, attachment or other right in the thing sold even if the seller is not the owner thereof or is not entitled to transfer it as aforesaid, provided that the buyer buys and takes possession of it in good faith.
In other words if you buy something, anything, dodgy from a dealer that habitually sells such stuff, in Israel, 'they can't touch you for it'? There is some weird Talmudic logic here, in effect anything goes, you can buy what you want as long as the dealer selling the stuff is not prevented from selling it by being locked up in jail. And he cannot be convicted on selling dodgy stuff to people because he is not in jail. Loopy. How about getting them for fraud, representing their goods to unsuspecting potential buyers as something they are not?

It will be interesting to see what 'good faith' means in the case of an artefact showing it had come from Side and with no papers to show it entered the Dayan collection legally. Can one buy paperless antiquities in 'good faith' from a collection that is well-known to have contained illicit material, as opposed to those where paperwork is provided to show legal origins? Levin and his lawyers assert that 'there is no basis for the forfeiture of the Cybele under the UNESCO Convention and the [C]CPIA'. Maybe so, but that merely shows how inadequate the US's CCPIA really is. They also assert that 'Turkey has no right of ownership in the Cybele in light of Levin’s ownership and clear title to the Cybele pursuant to Israeli law'. But the item is not now in Israel.

Note how US collectors moan like anything about their government 'respecting foreign laws' when it means they cannot hang on to some illegally exported loot, but are silent about the same phenomenon when it seems to imply that they can. If the item is legally held in Israel, let it be returned for sale in Israel now that Turketyy has laid a claim on it, , and we will see what their law allows and does not.

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