Ancient Limestone Relief Is Seized at European Art Fair
by James McKinley Jr., The New York Times
The European Fine Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory is an elegant event during which wealthy collectors browse through booths of stunning art pieces, from ancient sculptures to works by early 20th-century masters.
So it raised a few eyebrows on Friday afternoon (27 Oct., 2017) when two prosecutors and three police officers marched into the armory at 2 p.m. with stern expressions and a search warrant, witnesses said.
A few minutes later, cursing could be heard coming from a London dealer’s booth, breaking the quiet, reverential atmosphere. To the consternation of several art dealers looking on, the police and prosecutors seized an ancient limestone bas-relief of a Persian soldier with shield and spear, which once adorned a building in the ruins of Persepolis in Iran, according to a search warrant. The relief is worth about $1.2 million and was being offered for sale by Rupert Wace, a well-known dealer in antiquities in London.
In an statement, Mr. Wace said he had bought the relief from an insurance company, who had acquired it legally from a museum in Montreal, where it had been displayed since the 1950s.
“This work of art has been well known to scholars and has a history that spans almost 70 years,” Mr. Wace said in an email. “We are simply flabbergasted at what has occurred.”
The bas-relief is the latest in a string of antiquities the Manhattan district attorney’s office has seized from art dealers and museums in New York City as part of a concerted effort in recent years to recover ancient works. Those seizures have been led by the assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a classics scholar and colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve who played an important role in recovering antiquities stolen in Iraq during the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the evidence underpinning the search warrant. The possible charge listed on the papers is possession of stolen property. No one had been arrested in connection with the seizure on Sunday evening.
|The European Fine Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory features booths full of ancient sculptures and works by early 20th-century masters. Credit Kirsten Chilstrom. Courtesy The New York Times.|
Experts on artifacts from Persepolis say the bas-relief was first excavated in 1933 by a team of archaeologists from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. It appears in photographs of the site taken as late as 1936. The Persian government passed a law in 1930 making it illegal to transport such antiquities out of the country.
An Iranian cultural official, Ebrahim Shaqaqi, told the Tehran Times the bas-relief “had been stolen from Persepolis decades ago prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.”
“Legal follow-ups are underway to first prove that the relic belongs to Iran and finally repatriate it,” said Mr. Shaqaqi, who is the director of legal affairs at the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization.
Mr. Wace said the relief was donated to a Canadian museum in the early 1950s by Frederick Cleveland Morgan, the heir to a Canadian department store fortune who was an art collector and philanthropist.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts displayed the work until 2011, when it was stolen. Three years later, the Canadian authorities recovered it from a collector in Edmonton and returned it to the museum, according to CBC News. But the curators opted to keep the insurance money and let the AXA Insurance Company take possession. Mr. Wace said he acquired the piece from the insurance company and believed its provenance was legitimate.
Several dealers in ancient art at the fair, known as TEFAF, said they assumed the bas-relief was one of dozens of artifacts that had been taken from the Persepolis site in the 19th century, long before it became illegal.
But Lindsay Allen, an expert on Persepolis at King’s College London, said fewer artifacts were smuggled out in the 19th century than many dealers believe. The number taken out of the country surged in the late 1920s, just before the Iranian government outlawed their exportation. In the 1930s, very few pieces left Iran, she said, beyond the items the government agreed to allow the Oriental Institute in Chicago to take for its collection.
The bas-relief is an eight-inch-square piece of carved limestone that was part of a long line of soldiers depicted on a balustrade at the central building on the Persepolis site. It dates to the Achaemenid dynasty — the First Persian Empire — and was made sometime between 510 and 330 B.C., when Persepolis was sacked by Alexander the Great.
Geraldine Fabrikant and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.
Via The New York Times