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.