On Friday afternoon New York prosecutors and police officers seized a limestone relief which once decorated a building from the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. The New York Times reported that “cursing could be heard” from the booth. The seized bas-relief, valued at an estimated $1.2 million dollars was being offered for sale by Rupert Wace, a London-based antiquities dealer. In a statement, Wace argued that the stone fragment “has been well known to scholars and has a history that spans almost 70 years.”
According to Wace, the relief was donated to a Canadian museum in the early 1950s. It was on regular display until it was stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011. It was recovered by Canadian authorities, but rather than seek the return of the object, the museum decided to keep the insurance payout given by AXA Insurance Company. AXA then had title to the object, which sold it to Wace.
What then is the crime committed which would lead to a seizure? I have not had a look at the warrant, so I’m speculating here, but reportedly it alleges the bas-relief was stolen. Likely because it was removed from Iran after the enactment of an ownership declaration. That argument has not been helpful on its own for material from Iran when Iran initiated an unsuccessful civil lawsuit against Denyse Berend for another bas-relief removed from Persepolis before the Revolution.
This case may be different though, as this is a criminal seizure, not a private suite. Iran declared ownership of objects like this one in 1930. Adding to the claim is the immovable nature of this bas-relief. It had been affixed to the wall for 25 centuries before it was removed.
This object may have been transported in the modern era, but had been designed and crafted to stay on a wall as part of a monument. This seizure pushes up against some of the oldest successful seizure of illicit material, and has as one obstacle the passage of time. On the other hand though is the reality that this object was part of a monument, Persepolis, which was granted World Heritage Status in 1979.
The Antiquities Trade Gazette reported that the Art Loss Register was responsible for vetting objects at the fair. James Ratcliffe, the director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register stated:
We understand this piece was seized and although we’ve not seen an official explanation for this we gather it relates to the possibility that it was taken from Persepolis unlawfully. Given that it was on public display in a museum for over 60 years it will be interesting to see how the claim develops.
Indeed it will. What claims Wace will offer to defend his possession of the object, and what claims he may have against AXA or other predecessors up the chain of possession will be interesting to watch. One thing is certain though, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is vigorously policing the antiquities trade at a level not seen in the United States or elsewhere. Dealers of illicit cultural property are on notice.
- Laura Chesters, Persian limestone sculpture seized by police from antiquities dealer at TEFAF New York Antiquities Trade Gazette (2017), https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2017/persian-limestone-sculpture-seized-by-police-from-antiquities-dealer-at-tefaf-new-york/ (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
- James C. McKinley Jr, Ancient Limestone Relief Is Seized at European Art Fair, The New York Times, October 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/arts/design/ancient-limestone-relief-seized-european-fine-art-fair.html (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
- Stolen artifact from Montreal museum recovered in Edmonton, CBC News (2014), http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/stolen-artifact-from-montreal-museum-recovered-in-edmonton-1.2535754 (last visited Oct 30, 2017).