Italy wins US lawsuit as it seeks to recover marble statue
MILAN (AP) – Italy has won a legal victory in its attempt to recover an ancient marble statue it claims was stolen after it appeared in the possession of a New York antique dealer.
A U.S. District Court in New York on Monday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to lift Italy’s immunity brought by the Safani Gallery, which paid $ 152,625 in 2017 for the sculpture of the head of Alexander the Great dating from the age of Augustus of 300 BC.
The judge rejected several attempts by the gallery to argue that Italy’s behavior had lost its protection under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
The case pits Italy’s heritage law, designed to protect its considerable cultural heritage, against Safani’s claims of being a fair and bona fide buyer of a statue that has long been in 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.
The Italian artistic team, a section of paramilitary riflemen dedicated to the protection of 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 decision sends a strong message to auction houses and dealers who want to weaken attempts by sovereign countries to reclaim cultural heritage that ends up in the art market .
She said it was the third case in recent years involving dealers trying to sue foreign governments for reporting suspicious articles. “All three were made redundant,” she said.
In its lawsuit, the Safani Gallery claimed to have investigated the provenance of the head, “and came to believe that the head was neither stolen property nor otherwise subject to the legitimate claim of ownership by others.”
David Schoen, who represents the Safani Gallery, said his client is a “bona fide and bona fide buyer” and that “the gallery’s due diligence serves as a model.” He said Italy had never before claimed that the piece was stolen, noting that the statue “had been widely advertised and exhibited for decades at fairs and auctions attended by Italian authorities.”
The lawyer said he would submit an amended complaint and, if necessary, appeal.
Schoen said Italy, by claiming the statue was stolen and demanding its return through US law enforcement, was avoiding going to court to determine “who owns the legitimate title to the room”.
“This should trouble any honest American citizen – dealer or collector – based on the facts of this case,” he said.
If Italy were determined to be the owner in a court case, the Safani Gallery would be entitled to fair compensation under international conventions, Schoen said.
According to a court record, the marble antiquity was unearthed at the Roman Forum in a state-sponsored excavation and moved to the Antiquarium Forense museum before being listed as lost in 1960.
The question at issue is the date of the excavations – whether before the adoption and application of the Italian heritage law protecting cultural heritage, or after.
The gallery’s lawsuit argued, in part, that the district attorney’s office in seizing the statue was acting as an agent of Italy, which would have lost Italy’s immunity as it acted without proof that the statue had been stolen. But the court said there was no evidence that Italy “controls the actions of the prosecutor’s office.”
“Indeed, Italy’s relationship with the prosecutor’s office is analogous to someone reporting a crime or having something stolen from him,” the judge wrote.
In a similar lawsuit, Amineddoleh also represented Greece, which was sued by Sotheby’s after asking the auction house to remove an 8th century Corinthian bronze horse from an auction where it was valued until to $ 250,000. Sotheby’s claimed Greece was acting as a commercial entity in trying to stop the sale and therefore was not protected from legal action.
Greece lost in 2019, but won on appeal.
“An appeals court said no, Greece was acting under its heritage law,” Amineddoleh said, referring to a law to protect its antiques from theft and trafficking.
Colleen Barry, The Associated Press