July 25, 2018

New York Supreme Court judge orders plundered bas-relief from the city of Persepolis must be returned to Iran

A New York Supreme Court judge has ordered the plundered bas-relief from the city of Persepolis, which dates from the 5th Century B.C.E., must be returned to Iran as the country from which authorities say it was stolen more than 80 years ago.  

In February 2014 ARCA wrote about a sandstone bas-relief panel then-titled, "Head of a Guard" stolen in September 2011 from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and found 2000 miles away in Edmonton.  The Persian Achaemenid relief from Persepolis was one of the museum's only pieces representative of Persian art of the Achaemenid period (2nd half 6th century BCE to 330 BCE) and had been part of the museum's permanent collection for decades. 

It was discovered thanks to a collaborative criminal investigation by the Sûreté du Québec and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in collaboration with a Loss Adjuster from the insurance firm AXA Art.

Shortly after its recovery, and with the MMFA unable, or uninterested, in buying the piece back from its insurer, the Persepolis relief was sold.   AXA Art sold the relief to  London antiquities dealer Rupert Wace, owner of Rupert Wace Ancient Art and the object entered the commercial art market.

Rare and highly valuable on the ancient art market, the relief's debut was highlighted in an article by Royal Academy of Art's Charles Saumarez Smith and Sam Phillips titled What to see at Frieze 2016.   In that article, the pair picked out some of their favourite artwork on sale at the London fairs and this image of an ancient fellow was one of them.

The article opened with a high-resolution image of the Assyrian relief and went on to say that the antiquity was located at the booth of Sam Fogg near the show's entrance.  It mentioned the relief as being museum quality and that it was once part of the Montreal Museum of Art collection but made no mention of its theft in Canada or why the Museum did not buy back the object at the time it was recovered.  A further article in The Guardian stated that the piece was for sale for £2.2 million. 

But then the little soldier didn't sell.

The Park Avenue Armory. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Later, on October 27, 2017, law enforcement authorities confiscated the antiquity from Rupert Wace's own stand at the Park Avenue Armory during the first hours of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in New York.  The seizure was done under orders from the New York district attorney’s office on the basis that it had been unlawfully transported out of its country of origin.

Court records indicate that archeologists from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago had documented that the same bearded, eight-inch-square, relief of a Persian imperial guard could be seen in old photographs adorning the Persepolis ruins in Iran as late as the year 1936.  Given that the Iranian government had criminalised the export of such antiquities in 1930, the New York authorities seized the antiquity as evidence in a possession of stolen property investigation.

Antiquities dealer Rupert Wace argued that the relief had been donated to the Quebec National Museum by Canadian department store heir and collector Frederick Cleveland Morgan sometime between 1950 and 1951 and had been openly exhibited at the museum without any requests from Iran up until the date it was stolen in 2011.

Image Credit:  Courtesy of the
Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
But on Monday, July 23, 2018 a New York Supreme Court judge sided with Iran and ordered that the eight-inch-by-eight-inch work be returned to its country of origin on the basis that a thief cannot pass on good title on stolen goods.

As can be seen by this artworks presence in both the London and later New York sale venues, insurance claims can get complicated when it comes to magnificent art works once donated without fabricated, little, or no provenance to museums.  Especially when it comes to objects donated during time periods when stricter standards of due diligence may not have been satisfactorily applied.  This is especially true when high-value, high-portability and rapidly appreciating works of art are stolen and subsequently recovered years later. 

Updated:  26 May 2018

To view New York's very very interesting Application for Turnover and its details on the transactions and due diligence of both AXA and the dealer purchaser in determining this object's legitimacy in the market, please see here. 

To view New York's Final Turnover Order please see here. 

By Lynda Albertson

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