Thursday, 3 June 2021

Collectors Throwing Money Down the Drain: Can They Sue?


      Costly papyrus fragment           
As Michael Press points out, as Hobby Lobby (Green Collection)/Museum of the Bible have identified (or have had identified) stolen artefacts in their holdings and started to return them to the governments of the countries from which they'd been illegally exported, they've also started suing the people who sold them these objects. Last year they sued Christie's over the stolen Gilgamesh Dream Tablet (on consignment from Joseph David Hackmey, an Israeli businessman and art collector) that the US government had seized from them in 2019 (and have now added another object to the complaint. Now they are going after dealer and appraiser Professor Dirk Obbink. They had bought a considerable number of fragments of papyri from him, but it was subsequently shown that in the case of at least 32 of these items, Obbink did not have title to them, and they were the property of the EES. Hobby Lobby now argue that

"The fact that some unknown number of the Fragments were stolen renders all the Fragments unsalable[*] and worthless to Hobby Lobby, which stands to lose both the Fragments and the entire value of the Purchase Price it paid to Obbink".
Basically the stolen objects have tainted the entire assemblage of items acquired from the same source (Obbink). Actaully, it goes further, because anyone anywhere who purchased items from Obbink and who has no unchallengeable documentation that they were not stolen is faced with teh same problem. When their objects are sold on, nobody is going to put "purchased from Dirk Obbink, Oxford 5th November 2011" in the collecting history. They'll fudge over it ("formerly property of an English gentleman, before 2011"). I think the rest of his clients would be fully justified in suing him now on exactly the same grounds. There are probably quite a lot of them out there. Certainly, as time moves on from the nineteenth century, selling poorly-documented items is not going to get any easier as social awareness of the problems of looting and antiquities trafficking starts to consolidate.
There is of course a problem. Dealers' defence lawyers can challenge such complaints by demanding that the collector demonstrates to the court that they made every effort to ascertain precisely where the items on offer had come from before agreeing to purchase them. Anyone that cannot now cannot claim compensation because they did not receive pertinent answers to questions they had never previously asked. Caveat emptor.
* A question that may arise in court is whether items in a museum collection, as such, in fact have resale value.

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