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Museum Says Donor Gave It Looted Art

HONOLULU (CN) - The Honolulu Art Museum sued a donor for $880,000, claiming he cannot prove the art for which it has been paying him $80,000 a year did not come from a smuggling ring.

The Honolulu Academy of Arts dba the Honolulu Art Museum sued Joel Alexander Greene in state court, claiming he has not provided documents he promised to establish the provenance of "five of the objects from his collection of Southeast Asian art," valued at $1.3 million.

Greene offered in 2004 to give the museum the art in exchange for an $80,000 annuity for life, which the museum has been paying quarterly, it says in the July 31 lawsuit.

One reason the museum made the deal was because Greene also offered to loan it "37 additional objects, which would become gifts to HAA upon his death," the complaint states. The museum says it made the agreement based on Greene's assurance that he could establish provenance of the collection and present title and valid export and import documentation for it.

"Based on Greene's failure to provide the documentation, which he represented he had and his failure to provide the written warranty as he previously agreed, HAA believes that the promise documentation does not exist," the HAA says now.

In April this year, the Department of Homeland Security took seven artifacts the museum had acquired, unknowingly, from one of the world's largest international art smuggling rings.

The museum says its first transaction with Greene, in 2003, went well. It acquired a rare Cambodian sculpture from the 11th century Baphoun period. He delivered as promised, including indemnification and warranties, the museum says.

In August 2004, after Greene shipped the pieces to Honolulu from his home in San Francisco and the museum's experts examined it, the collection committee voted to approve Greene's proposal, including the annuity agreement.

But seven years later, after New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor was arrested at Frankfurt Airport in Germany, the Honolulu Art Museum's director investigated Greene's donations, "to verify that it had documentation of clear title and provenance of select pieces in its collection."

"As a result of that investigation, HAA discovered that it did not have the documentation or signed warranty Greene promised," the museum says.

It says Greene has responded to its repeated requests for documents by claiming that "the Annuity Agreement did not require him to provide documentation." This reinforced the museum's belief that "he lacked title and the objects were not lawfully obtained, exported, or imported," according to the complaint.

Homeland Security took the seven pieces from the museum in April after getting a top that the museum had an artifact tied to Kapoor. Museum director Stephan Jost said Homeland Security identified one work it suspected was stolen and the museum identified six other works it believed were also looted from archeological sites in India.

Kapoor sold five and donated one of the artifacts to the museum. The seventh was a gift by a private collector. Kapoor has been extradited to India to stand trial on charges of organizing a $100 million art smuggling ring from Art of the Past gallery in Manhattan.

Kapoor is believed to have sold other looted art to museums across the country and across the world, including the Peabody Essex in Salem, Mass., Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Australia.

Homeland Security is still investigating Kapoor's ring, and says it relied on tips like the one it got from a visitor to the Honolulu museum.

The museum wants Greene ordered to "provide documentation establishing that he had and conveyed clear title to HAA, that the pieces are authentic and that they were lawfully exported from their countries of origin and imported into the United States."

It also seeks a declaration that Greene breached his obligations and must return the annuity money to the museum, and the museum can terminate the payments.

The museum is represented by Pamela Bunn with Alston, Hunt Floyd & Ing.

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