By Chris Michaels
What happens when, decades after purchasing work from a reputable dealer, you learn the dealer was a major player in the illicit antiquities trade? Is the work subject to forfeiture? Do you have any legal recourse if a claim is made against the work? What if that claim is made by a foreign government?
According to a recent Declaratory Judgment action filed in the Southern District of New York, those questions may be answered. In the action, the Barnet family of New York is seeking a determination by the Court that even though a dealer who was later found guilty of dealing in stolen antiquities, a 1973 purchase of a Bronze Horse by members of the family does not subject the work to forfeiture.
In 1973, collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet purchased a bronze figure of a horse of Corinthian type, 14cm tall, from the Geometric Period from dealer Robin Symes. Pursuant to the filing, bronze horses of this type are common styles of Greek statues, which were created throughout mainland Greece and on Crete. Several of these kinds of statues are found in museums around the world, including the Louvre and the Met.
Prior to their purchase of their Bronze Horse, it had been sold at public auction in Switzerland in 1967. After their purchase, the work stayed in the Barnet collection and was displayed for decades in their homes in Long Island and Manhattan. In 2017 the Barnet family, through a trust, consigned the Bronze Horse to Sotheby’s for sale. After marketing the work and scheduling it for sale in the spring of 2018, Sotheby’s received a letter from the Greek government one business day before the scheduled sale.
In its letter Greece claimed, among other things, that the Bronze horse was cultural property of Greece and demanded the auction house immediately withdraw the work from the scheduled auction.
In its letter Greece claimed, among other things, that the Bronze horse was cultural property of Greece and demanded the auction house immediately withdraw the work from the scheduled auction. In support of its claim, Greece referred to Robin Symes’ prior involvement with the work and suggested that it may have been illegally exported from the country.
The auction house, out of an abundance of caution, and because the work’s value was now affected by the claimed ownership by Greece, withdrew the Bronze Horse from the scheduled auction and, along with members of the Barnet family, thereafter filed the Declaratory Judgment. Through the action, the auction house and the family are now asking the Court to make a determination that: 1) the Barnet family is the true and lawful owners of the Bronze Horse; 2) that Greece has no ownership rights in or to the Bronze Horse; 3) that Greece has no basis to seek forfeiture or repatriation of the Bronze Horse under applicable international and U.S. law; and 4) that Sotheby’s may lawfully sell the Bronze Horse on the Barnet family’s behalf. The action is currently pending.
Whatever the outcome may be, the case raises some interesting questions regarding due diligence and the importance of knowing with whom you are dealing in the art world. The days of handshake deals and turning a blind eye to questionable provenance are over. Sophisticated collectors should, depending on the value of the work, hire or consult advisors or other arts professionals to offer guidance on purchases, sales, and everything in between. This case is a good reminder that simply relying on the reputation of a dealer may lead you to answer some uncomfortable questions in the future.
About the Author
Chris Michaels is an attorney at Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, LLP, where he focuses on litigation and art law. He can be reached at 518-421-7238 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be found on Twitter @cmichaelsartlaw.