A small bronze horse figure from Ancient Greece is the subject of a lawsuit by Sotheby’s auction house against Greece, in an unprecedented legal case, where the auction house sues a government, media report. The antic figure dated from the 8th century BC was owned by art collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet, until Sarett’s death in 2017. It was given Sotheby’s for auction by the family of late art collectors.The Greek Culture Ministry says it is not aware of the lawsuit.
The famed art and antiquities broker has sued Greece in an unusual case over ownership of an ancient, 5-inch horse valued at $150,000 to $250,000.
The horse, listed at auction as a “Greek Figure of a Horse of Corinthian type … with crested mane with fine notches at the edge,” was to have been sold on May 14 along with other items from the collection of the late art lovers Howard and Saretta Barnet, according to a suit filed Tuesday in Manhattan Federal Court.
But at the last minute Greece sent Sotheby’s a letter demanding that the horse from around the 8th Century B.C. not be put up for bid because it had “been stolen from Greece in violation of Greek patrimony laws,” according to the suit.
Sotheby’s complied with Greece’s demand, but said the government has no evidence the horse was stolen. Rather, the auction house says, the Barnets bought the horse fair and square at a New York action in 1973 for roughly $20,000.
Before the bronze horse was owned by London dealer Robin Symes, a now-disgraced antiquities dealer. Symes was accused of dealing in looted antiquities and sent to prison for contempt of court in 2005.
However, according to ATG, Sotheby’s argues that the horse was also owned by two other art and antiquities dealers before being acquired by Symes and had been sold at an “established and reputable European auction house” – Swiss auction firm Münzen und Medaillen in 1967.
Sotheby’s suit — the first time auction house has sued a government, according to the Financial Times — asks a judge to “clarify the rights of legitimate owners.”
“Our parents were passionate collectors who spent decades assembling an extensive and varied collection. Every object that entered their collection, including this ancient bronze sculpture, was bought in good faith,” the Barnet family said in a statement through Sotheby’s.
In a statement sent to AntiquesTradeGazette, Sotheby’s said: “We have taken the step of asking a Federal Court to confirm the ownership of this ancient bronze sculpture in order to clarify that it and other objects like it can be traded on the legitimate market.
“While now claiming ownership, Greece has not come forward with any evidence or facts to support its newly-minted claim the object should be treated as ‘stolen’, and we are asking the court to clarify the rights of legitimate owners of ancient works of art and protect clients against baseless claims.”
In a letter sent to Sotheby’s on May 11, the Greek ministry claims the horse, one of more than 1000 known, is “cultural property that had been stolen from Greece in violation of Greek patrimony laws”.
“The Ministry of Culture and Sports expects the Sotheby’s and the Howard and Saretta Barnet family to notify it about the lawsuit and will take all necessary measures to defend the public interest.” the ministry said to amna new agency.