Sotheby’s takes Greece to court in antiquities test case

by on 6 June 2018

Auction house launches first action against a state after Athens demands return of bronze

Sotheby’s is taking Greece’s ministry of culture to court over the ownership of an ancient Greek bronze horse, in a highly unusual legal attempt by the auction house “to clarify the rights of legitimate owners” amid a surge in claims by countries of origin.

The lawsuit was filed in a New York court on Tuesday. It was brought by the auction house and the work’s owners, the family of the late collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet, who bought the 14cm high bronze horse in 1973. It is thought to be the first time the auction house has launched an action against a government.

The statuette, dating from the eighth century BC and given an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000, was due to have been sold in Sotheby’s New York salerooms on May 14 with other sculptures from the Barnets’ collection. One of the highlights of the auction, the stylised horse from the Geometric Period was featured on the cover of the catalogue.

On the day before the auction, Greece’s culture ministry sent the auctioneer a letter demanding it withdraw the bronze from the sale and help with returning it to Greece.

In the letter seen by the Financial Times, the ministry said there was nothing in its archives to indicate the object “had left the country in a legal way” and it reserved “the right to take the necessary legal action” to repatriate it. The horse had appeared in the records of Robin Symes, a British art dealer, who was later accused of trading in looted archaeological treasures, the Sotheby’s court filing noted.

Sotheby’s rejected the Greek claims, pointing to the 1967 sale of the horse at a public Swiss auction before it passed into Symes’s hands and thence to the Barnets’ collection. Nonetheless, it pulled the statue from the May sale at the eleventh hour, since the existence of the claim damaged its marketability.

Arguing that Greece had no right to interfere in the sale and could provide no information as to when or by whom it had been stolen or removed from the country, Sotheby’s said it was asking the court “to clarify the rights of legitimate owners of ancient works of art and protect clients against baseless claims”.

It is highly unorthodox for auction houses to pursue such disputes in the courtroom. In previous cases of disputed provenance, owners and auction houses would typically withdraw an object from sale and, unable to sell it to another buyer, negotiate behind closed doors with the accusing country to sell it the work.

But Greece’s action underlines the more aggressive pursuit of cultural artefacts by archaeologically rich nations in the past decade, with Italy, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and more recently China being increasingly willing to intervene in art market transactions.

Tatiana Flessas, an expert in cultural heritage law and an associate professor of law at the London School of Economics, said: “There’s been a paradigm shift in the approach to antiquities dealing. Auction houses are now being forced to take on some of the risk of the provenance questions where antiquities are concerned.”

The provenance of ancient objects is often patchy, but one rule of thumb used by dealers, auctioneers and museums is that questions should be raised over any work that cannot account for its ownership after 1970, the year of a Unesco convention on trafficking in looted artefacts.

Greece’s ministry of culture had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

The Barnet family said in a statement: “Our parents were passionate collectors who spent decades assembling an extensive and varied collection. Every object that entered their collection, including this ancient bronze sculpture, was bought in good faith.”

James Pickford –