|Image Credit: ARCA|
Screenshot taken 02 May 2018
A little more than two years ago, on 01 May 2018 ARCA was informed by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark that a suspect bronze Greek figure of a horse was on consignment as part of an upcoming Sotheby's auction scheduled for 14 May 2018 titled "The Shape of the Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet." The illicit trafficking researcher had matched the 8th century BCE statuette to three photos found in the confiscated Robin Symes archive.
|Three, (3) photos from the Symes -Michaelides archive |
provided by Christos Tsirogiannis
This was the second of two objects in the Barnet collection which have been discovered to have passed through the hands of dealers known for having worked with looters and middlemen. The first, according to antiquities scholar Professor David Gill, was a 550 BCE Black-Figure Kylix attributed to the Hunt Painter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which the Barnet family donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999 and which was relinquished by the museum via a transfer in title in a negotiation completed with the Italian Ministry of Culture on February 21, 2006.
Given the multijurisdictional nature of the identification, Tsirogiannis had already sent his findings to INTERPOL given that the source country could be Italy or Greece and the object was presently up for sale in a New York auction house.
After receiving a letter of concern from the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic on 11 May 2018, who asserted that a circa-8th century BCE bronze horse was the property of Greece, Sotheby’s withdrew the Lot from auction in order to allow the interested parties time to discuss their findings. Unable to find a mutually satisfactory solution, the estate of Howard and Saretta Barnet and Sotheby’s together filed a lawsuit, Barnet et al v. Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic, in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on 5 June 2018 seeking a declaratory judgment that the bronze horse had been "acquired lawfully and in good faith" by Howard and Saretta Barnet who purchased the Bronze Horse on or about 16 November 1973, for £15,000 and was, therefore, the family's property to dispose of. The lawsuit, the first of its kind involving an auction house, aimed in some part, to hold the country of Greece responsible for the financial losses Sotheby’s and the family incurred as a result of what the litigating parties believe was an unjustified claim by the Ministry.
On 5 November 2018 Greece filed a motion to dismiss, asserting immunity from litigation, and moved to dismiss Barnet et al's Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) arguing that the U.S. District Court didn't have the jurisdiction to hear a case involving a foreign nation, per the terms of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 US law codified at Title 28, §§ 1330, 1332, 1391(f), 1441(d), and 1602–1611 of the United States Code, that establishes the limitations as to whether a foreign sovereign nation (or its political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities) may be sued in U.S. courts.
On 21 June 2019 U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla rejected Greece’s motion to dismiss citing a small technicality in the current legal framework ruling that the formal inquiry letter from the Greek Ministry of Culture to Sotheby's, requesting that the auction house withdraw the lot until its provenance and exit from Greece could be researched, fell under the commercial activity exception, something which, if affirmed on appeal, might have ended the Greek's claim right then and there.
By mid-July 2019 the Greek Ministry through their attorney, Leila Amineddoleh, had filed a Notice of Interlocutory Appeal and a Motion to stay litigation in the case, which Judge Failla quickly granted pending appeal.
Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling stating in their opinion that Greece's act of sending its letter to the auction house was not in connection with a commercial activity outside of the United States and was the country's enactment and enforcement of patrimony laws which are by their very nature, archetypal sovereign activities. The Appeals Court concluded that the District Court had erred in concluding that it had jurisdiction and the case was remanded with instructions to dismiss the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
There are many challenges posed by how the courts, and judges, interpret the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and its "commercial" and "expropriation" exceptions. This case though had a happy ending for Greece.