In Pursuit of Alexander the Great: Establishing Ownership of Ancient Art

Head of Alexander the Great, dating back to around 300 B.C. (Photo courtesy of Safani Gallery)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Alexander the Great traveled more than 3,000 miles during his conquest of the world, but an ancient marble bust of the Macedonian ruler could very well travel a great deal more if a New York City art gallery’s federal lawsuit successfully returns the artifact to its collection.

Safani Gallery, one of the oldest galleries of ancient art in the United States, filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal judge to block the forfeiture of a marble antiquity that was seized last year by the Manhattan district attorney and ordered to be returned to Italy.

Dated as early as 300 B.C., the marble bust of Alexander the Great portrays Alexander as Helios, god of the sun in Greek mythology, with his head of wavy hair pointed upward and to his left.

The ancient fragment of the bust was excavated from the site of the Roman Forum in the early 1900s.

Safani Gallery bought the statue from a private collector through a London-based dealer in June 2017; the following February, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office executed a warrant for the seizure of the head from Safani’s Upper East Side gallery.

In the Manhattan District Attorney’s court filings for an order to turn over the head in 2018,  since the fragment of the statue was exported from Italy without permission, it was and remains exclusively the Italian Republic’s property under Italy’s patrimony law, and it is “stolen” property as to any other party seeking to claim ownership.

Likely stolen from Italy’s state-run Forense Museum in Rome, Manhattan prosecutors alleged that the statue turned up at auction at Sotheby’s in 1974 and then disappeared for 37 years until it was sold there again in 2011 for $92,500 to the private collector from whom Safani purchased it.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said in court filings that the statue lacks the kind of paper trail that typically accompanies ancient artifacts exported out of Italy.

“To date, no one has ever produced any records of bill of sale for any pre-1974 transaction for the Head of Alexander. Nor has anyone ever produced any records or invoice for the 1974 sale by Sotheby’s to ‘Alterrtum Ltd.’ Nor has any party ever produced an export visa or stamp authorizing the Head’s removal from Italy. No bill of lading. No transportation documents. No mention in any written record of any kind,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos wrote in July 2018.

“Nothing exists except questions: How did the Head leave Italy? Directly from Rome to New York? Or were there intermediary, laundering countries?” Bodganos wrote in the city’s application for a turnover order.

“Experience tells us that this is exactly what the black market in looted antiquities always looks like: a disappearance from a source country and then a miraculous reappearance many years later in a market country with no paper trail followed by a questionable sale designed to created an ownership history,” Bogdanos wrote. “A neon sign flashing ‘stolen’ would be less subtle.”

Safani Gallery paid approximately $152,625 for the bust in 2017.

In a complaint filed Monday in the Southern District of New York, Safani seeks a federal judge’s order to stop the statue from being returned to Italy.

Represented by Alabama-based attorney David Schoen, Safani claims in the suit that no sufficient evidence establishes a claim that the artwork was ever stolen from Italy or that the Italian government is the rightful owner.

The suit, which names Italy as the sole defendant, further argues that any valid theft claims would be barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

“Upon information and belief, at no time ever, prior to February of 2018, has any agent of Italy or any custodian of the Head of Alexander, notified any law enforcement official or made any claim in any forum in any way contending or even suggesting that the Head of Alexander ever was stolen or constituted stolen property,” the complaint states. “There is no competent evidence at all that the head was ever stolen.”

According to Safani’s suit, in June 2017 the Art Loss Registry confirmed that it knew of no claims that the Head of Alexander was missing or stolen and confirmed that it been had been acquired by Armenian-American archaeologist and art collector, Hagop Kevorkian, likely prior to World War II.

The provenance in Sotheby’s 2011 auction listing corroborates Kevorkian’s ownership and the likely timing of his acquisition.

The gallery seeks a judgment declaring that it is the exclusive owner of the bust and that Italy has no claim to it.

Safani also seeks the immediate return of the statue and damages for the losses incurred as a proximate result of Italy’s alleged conduct.

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