Tuesday 3 August 2021

Antiquities Dealer Loses Case Against Italian Government


ArtNet News
A U.S. judge has dismissed an art dealer’s lawsuit against the Italian Cultural Ministry over a disputed sculpture. The motheaten broken-off head is thought to be of Alexander the Great. Acting on a lead from the Italian culture ministry, the object was seized a few years ago  by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. New York’s Safani Gallery brought the suit against the Italian government to try and block its return to Italy and get it back (Kate Brown, 'A Dealer’s Attempt to Sue the Nation of Italy Over Its Claim on an Ancient Marble Head Has Been Quashed by a U.S. Judge' ArtNet News August 3, 2021). 

The ancient fragment of the bust was excavated in the early 1900s. It been had apparently been acquired by Armenian-American archaeologist and art collector, Hagop Kevorkian (d. 1962) prior to World War II.  Safani gallery acquired the piece from a private collector via a London-based dealer for around $152,625 in 2017. In February 2018, the Italian culture ministry reached out to U.S. officials to report that Safani Gallery was promoting its ownership of the head, which was “a stolen object, rightfully owned” by Italy. The sculpture was seized by authorities. In November 2019, Safani filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to block the forfeiture of the object to Italy, but the judge found that Italy is protected from being sued in a U.S. court by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).
According to Courthouse News‘s reporting on the 2019 lawsuit, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office alleged that the piece was likely stolen from the Forense Museum in Rome, later turning up at auction at Sotheby’s in 1974. Almost four decades later, it sold in 2011 at Sotheby’s for $92,500 to the collector from whom Safani, in turn, purchased it.
Lawyer David Schoen, who is representing Safani Gallery, told Artnet News that his client plans to press on with the case. He pointed to the judge’s note stating that Safani Gallery appropriately investigated the work’s provenance when acquiring the work.
“No collector or dealer who does her or his due diligence should have to accept having a piece bought in good faith, without any negative indicia, widely advertised and displayed for decades at fairs and auctions attended by Italian authorities and in books they monitor, summarily taken from him or her like this without any proof and without just compensation,” commented Schoen. He maintains that there is insufficient evidence to show that the bust was stolen from Italy.
There is a lesson here for all antiquities buyers to learn, it is NOT "due diligence" for a seller or buyer to establish "by when" an artefact was on this or that segment of the antiquities market. A licit artefact is clearly (1970 UNESCO Convention, art. 3) one where legal ownership and custody can be traced back to how and when it left teh ground, and how and when it left teh source country. In every case. A mere seller's say-so, or a partial "they-can't-touch-you-for-it-because they-can't-prove-it's-stolen" collecting history no longer cuts the mustard in these days of responsible collecting. Nobody makes a dealer go into this difficult business. They choose to do it, and they choose how to do it, what corners they are prepaed to cut and which ones they wioll not compromise on. The world has made it clear what they expect from a legitimate market, and dealers have been aware of this all along. All along.

1 comment:

David Gill said...

The head had formed part of the collection in the Museo Forense in Rome. It is discussed in:
Gill, D. W. J. 2020. Context matters: collating the past. Amelia: ARCA. Chapter 23.

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