Italy Wins US Case as It Seeks to Reclaim Marble Statue

MILAN — Italy has won a legal victory in its bid to reclaim an ancient marble statue it asserted was stolen after it turned up in the possession of a New York antiquities dealer. 

A U.S. district court in New York on Monday threw out a suit seeking to lift Italy's immunity brought by the Safani Gallery, which paid $152,625 in 2017 for the sculpture depicting the head of Alexander the Great dating Augustan Age of 300 B.C. 

The judge rebuffed several attempts by the gallery to argue that Italy's behavior had forfeited its protection under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. 

The case pits Italy's patrimony law, designed to protect its considerable cultural heritage, against Safani's claims of being a just and bona fide buyer of a statue that had long been on the art market. 

The statue remains in the possession of the Manhattan district attorney's office, which seized it in February 2018 after an Italian cultural official spotted the gallery's listing and Italy claimed it had been stolen. 

Italy's art squad, a section of the paramilitary carabinieri dedicated to protecting Italy's cultural heritage, declined to comment on the case. The Culture Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Leila Amineddoleh, who represented Italy, said the ruling sends a strong message to auction houses and dealers who want to weaken sovereign countries' attempts to reclaim cultural patrimony that finds its way onto the art market. 

She said it was the third case in recent years that involved dealers attempting to sue foreign governments for communicating about suspicious items. "All three have been dismissed,'' she said. 

In its suit, the Safani Gallery claimed to have investigated the head's provenance, "and came to believe that the head was neither stolen property nor otherwise subject to another's claim of rightful ownership." 

David Schoen, who represents the Safani Gallery, said that his client is a "bona fide, good-faith purchaser" and that the district attorney's office had said in a court document that the gallery's "due diligence serves as a model." 

Schoen said Italy previously had never made any claim that the piece had been stolen, noting that the statue "had been widely advertised and displayed for decades at fairs and auctions attended by Italian authorities."

The lawyer said he will submit an amended complaint, and if necessary appeal. 

Schoen said that Italy, by claiming the statue had been stolen and seeking its return through U.S. law enforcement, was avoiding going to court to determine "who owns lawful title to the piece." 

"That should trouble every honest American citizen — dealer or collector — based on the facts of this case," he said. 

 If Italy was determined to be the owner in a court case, then the Safani Gallery would be entitled to just compensation under international conventions, Schoen said. 

According to a court filing, the marble antiquity was unearthed at the Roman Forum during a state-sponsored excavation and moved to the Antiquarium Forense museum before being listed as lost in 1960. 

At issue in the case is the date of excavation — whether it was before Italy's patrimony law protecting cultural heritage was enacted and applied, or after. 

The gallery's suit argued, in part, that the district attorney's office in seizing the statue was acting as Italy's agent, which would have forfeited Italy's immunity as it acted without proof the statue was stolen. But the court said there was no evidence Italy "controlled the actions of the DA's office."

"Indeed, Italy's relationship to the DA's office is analogous to someone who reports a crime, or that something was stolen from them,'' the judge wrote. 

In a similar suit, Amineddoleh also represented Greece, which was sued by Sotheby's after it asked the auction house to withdraw an 8th century Corinthian bronze horse from an auction where it was valued at up to $250,000. Sotheby's claimed Greece was acting as a commercial entity by trying to stop the sale and thus not protected from lawsuits. 

Greece lost in 2019, but won on appeal. 

"An appeals court said no, Greece was acting in furtherance of its patrimony law," Amineddoleh said, referring to a law to protect its antiquities from being stolen and trafficked. 


ATHENS — A more than 3,000-year-old gold signet ring that was stolen from an Aegean island in World War II, crossed the Atlantic, was bought by a Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian scientist and ended up in a Swedish museum has found its way back to Greece.

Top Stories

General News

FALMOUTH, MA – The police in Falmouth have identified the victim in an accident involving a car plunging into the ocean on February 20, NBC10 Boston reported.

General News

NEW YORK – Meropi Kyriacou, the new Principal of The Cathedral School in Manhattan, was honored as The National Herald’s Educator of the Year.

General News

PHILADELPHIA – The Federation of Hellenic Societies of Philadelphia and Greater Delaware Valley announced that the Evzones, the Presidential Guard of Greece will be participating in the Philadelphia Greek Independence Day Parade on March 20.


Mission…to Amyntaio, a TNH Documentary by Clelia Charissis

Dear readers, let me briefly introduce myself, while wishing you "a summer full of positive energy and good health.

Enter your email address to subscribe

Provide your email address to subscribe. For e.g. abc@xyz.com

You may unsubscribe at any time using the link in our newsletter.