1. NEW YORK 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 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.
2. NEW YORK NY Cops Seize Panel with 70 Years Provenance
NY Cops Seize Panel with 70 Years Provenance
October 30, 2017. Crusade Against the Art Trade: Where Will It End?
A prosecutor from the New York County District Attorney’s office walked into the booth of English art dealer Rupert Wace at the gala opening of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) at New York’s Park Avenue Armory on October 27. He was holding a search warrant and accompanied by uniformed police officers, who seized a limestone bas relief from Persepolis in Iran. The relief was worth $1.2 million. Wace had purchased it from an insurance company, which had acquired it from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
The New York District Attorney’s office, under the aggressive direction of DA Cyrus Vance and dedicated anti-art trade crusader Assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos, has made two cultural property seizures in recent weeks. Neither object was recently looted; together, they had been in museums or private collections for over 115 years.
There was no evidence of wrongdoing by the collectors or dealers involved. Wace had purchased the bas relief after it was given up by the Canadian museum. The other seized object, a fragment of mosaic from Italy, was purchased in the 1960s by a journalist and his wife, an antique dealer, from an aristocratic family in Italy. According to the couple, the deal was brokered by an Italian police official “famed for his success in recovering art work looted by the Nazis.”
These cases raise serious questions, impacting both private and museum collections in the US. When an artwork is well-known to scholars, published or exhibited, how long is too long for a country to make a claim? Will museums and collectors in the US that are second, third, or fourth generation owners be held to vague, ambiguous, and unenforced laws in foreign nations, when those nations have failed to make any claim for decades? At what point do US judges or law enforcement consider whether the evidence, or the terms of the foreign laws, actually provides a reasonable basis for a claim that an object is ‘stolen’?
The Iranian Law
There is serious doubt whether the Persepolis bas relief qualifies as stolen property under Iranian law. The seizure was ostensibly based on a 1930 Iranian law, the National Heritage Protection Act dated November 3, 1930, and the Regulation Implementing the Law dated Nov. 3, 1930 relating to the Conservation of Antiquities in Iran (3 Nov 1930) (“1930 Regulation”).
Yet this National Heritage Protection Act, along with its 1930 Regulation, does not appear to be the type of national ownership law that could enable a claim to be enforced under US law. Simply having Iranian art outside of Iran does not make it ‘stolen.’ The Iranian National Heritage Protection Act does state that all artifacts shall be considered national heritage, and shall be ‘protected,’ but does not say that all antiquities are state-owned. In fact, the 1930 Regulations allow continuing private ownership and even sale in Iran of an “immovable antiquity with protected status” (Chapter I. Article 7). The 1930 Regulation also allow owners of movable antiquities to sell them if notice is given 10 days before to the government (Chapter II. Article 16). Indeed, the 1930 Regulation allows commercial trade even in “immovable National Monuments” when they are approved for sale by the Minister of Education (Chapter IV. Article 41.)
Legal Commercial Looting in Iran up to WW2
If claims based upon misreading this foreign law go forward, then New York’s famous archaeologically excavated collections from the Metropolitan Museum’s Nishapur expeditions – and many important collections in other museums – are vulnerable.
The Nishapur excavation’s history clearly shows how foreign archaeologists removed items from Iran legally after 1930, by buying a ‘concession.’ They also show that legal, purely commercial exploitation of archaeological sites was prevalent until at least 1947, when the Met’s concession was terminated. The operation of Iranian law, as it affected this scholarly expedition, is vividly described on pages xxiv and xxv of the Introduction to Charles K. Wilkinson, Nishapur, Pottery of the Islamic Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973. The book also describes how the American archaeologists deliberately refrained from buying archaeological material from dealers who sold it openly in the bazaars, acquiring surface finds only directly from peasants at the site, in order not to confuse the record. (It is said in the archaeological community that the expedition lost its concession for Nishapur, not because the Iranian authorities were trying to preserve the site, but because the Met was outbid by commercial diggers.)