Ming Vase Dispute Won’t Crack Under Pressure

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A federal judge has ushered forward litigation over a rare Ming vase whose fate is uncertain after an auction house says it had to cancel a sale with a Chinese national.
     Billing itself as America’s oldest auction house, Samuel T. Freeman & Co. says it sold a Ming-style blue and white 18th century vase to a Chinese citizen in March 2011.
     But ownership of the vase came into question when Peter and Helen Hiam, the couple who had consigned the piece, allegedly accused the auction house of violating consumer-protection law.
     Freeman says the Hiams’ attorney sent it a letter demanding return of the vase, plus all of the funds Freeman had collected from the buyer.
     Ting Wang had placed a $1.2 million winning bid on the vase but failed to pay in full within 10 days of the sale as required, Freeman said.
     The auction house says it eventually received $750,000 toward the purchase price, of which it kept $427,700 and advanced $322,300 to the Hiams.
     It also allegedly learned that two Chinese nationals, not one, were involved in the attempted purchase.
     Freeman says it has the vase, that the sale has been canceled and that the vase should be returned to the Hiams.
     But the Chinese buyers have not acknowledged the cancelation notice, and have also not mentioned the $750,000 paid toward the sale price, the auction house says.
     Finding itself in possession of property to which there are competing claims, Freeman filed an interpleader complaint in March 2012.
     Giving the Hiams both the vase and the full $750,000 could open Freeman to a claim from the Chinese buyers, according to the complaint.
     “Freeman’s believes that if it complies with the seller’s demand to deliver all the funds to the sellers that the buyers would then contend that by the sellers’ demanding and receiving over half the sale price, the sellers had ratified the sale and that Freeman’s had violated a duty to the buyers by delivering the vase to the sellers,” the complaint states.
     In an April motion to dismiss, stay or transfer the case, the Hiams said they had filed a federal complaint against Samuel T. Freeman & Co. in Massachusetts a week before the auction house filed its interpleader complaint in Pennsylvania.
     U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter refused the Hiams’ motion Monday, noting that the Hiams “do not allege any facts indicating that [would-be buyers] Wang or Liu had any contact with Massachusetts such that the exercise of personal jurisdiction over them there would be appropriate.”
     “Given the lack of information before it regarding personal jurisdiction over Wang and Liu in Massachusetts, the court is unable to conclusively determine at this time whether the first-filed rule applies under these circumstances,” the 29-page opinion states.

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