NEW YORK – While some countries and museums around the world are returning antiquities to their homelands of origin, the noted auction house Sotheby’s is taking Greece’s Culture Ministry to court over who owns an ancient Greek bronze horse.
The suit was filed June 5 in New York, The Financial Times said, with the auction house seeking “to clarify the rights of legitimate owners,” as countries are trying to get back stolen goods, with Greece for decades unable to get the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles plundered nearly 200 years ago by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin.
The suit was joined by the horse’s current owners, the family of the late collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet, who bought the 14-centimeter high (5.5 inches) horse in 1973. The suit is believed to be the first against a government with countries sometimes reverting to the courts to go after auctioneers, private collectors and museums holding antiquities.
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 and was featured on the catalogue cover.
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 get it back.
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 then to the Barnets’ collection but pulled it from the sale anyway after the claim drove down its marketability.
Sotheby’s said Greece, the country of origin of the horse, had no right to intervene as it couldn’t provide any information on who stole it or when without apparently challenging that it wasn’t taken away legally.
Tatiana Flessas, an expert in cultural heritage law and an associate professor of law at the London School of Economics, told the paper, “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 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,” without indicating whether they knew it had been stolen before being sold.