June 9, 2020, U.S. Court Ruling

The United States courts have settled a dispute between Greece and Sotheby’s Auction House over ownership of an ancient bronze horse. Tuesday’s ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recognized countries’ right for the repatriation of antiquities.

The horse in question is an 8th century bronze statue from the Geometric period of ancient Greek art. The 2700-year-old piece was estimated to sell for between $150,000 and $250,000.

In 2018, the Greek government requested Sotheby’s stop their auction claiming ownership of the horse was of dubious provenance and it should be returned to Greece. Sotheby’s cancelled the auction then countersued the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports in U.S. Courts. Descendants of art collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet joined the countersuit seeking a declaration from the court that the family owned the statue and that the auction could proceed. They also asked that Greece provide evidence of their claim that the piece was traded illicitly. Greece was unable to provide that evidence and requested to dismiss the countersuit. That request was denied in 2019 and Greece appealed.

Tuesday’s appeal court ruling stated that Greece had in fact been pursuing its sovereign rights, not commercial interests with their claim of ownership. So under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA)*, Greece could not face the countersuit. The case also stated Greece was not required to provide documentation of ownership since its exit from the country effectively putting that responsibility to the Sotheby’s and the Barnet heirs.

“The ministry will proceed with every legal process to repatriate the statuette, stressing that when stolen and illegally exported monuments are returned … (the country of origin) regains a segment of its history,” said Greece’s Culture Minister, Lina Mendoni.

The case marks legal precedent. It is the first in which an auction house in the U.S. sued a foreign government for communicating concerns over an antiquity. And it established a legal precedent for any country from which cultural items are illegally exported and supports their sovereign rights to pursue legal means for their return.

Photo Courtesy: Sotheby’s

*The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FISA) was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976. It defines jurisdiction of United States courts in suits against foreign states, the circumstances in which foreign states are immune from suit and in which execution may not be levied on their property, and for other purposes.

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