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Greece Ramps up Legal Fight Against Sotheby's to Win Back Bronze Statuette

This undated photo provided by the Greek Culture Ministry on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, shows an 8th Century B.C. figurine of a horse from the so-called Geometric period of ancient Greek art that was listed for auction by Sotheby's in New York in May 2018.

Greece has vowed to ratchet up legal pressure against a leading U.S. auction house in a bid to win back a 2,700-year-old bronze statuette allegedly looted by a controversial antiquities dealer and then sold to a family of collectors in New York.

The move is part of a new, high-powered drive by Athens to track auction houses around the globe and repatriate looted ancient artifacts -- a campaign that could have far-reaching repercussions on the antiquities market.

Greece's legal offensive follows a U.S court decision this week to reject a bid by Sotheby's auction house to proceed with the sale of the eighth century bronze horse, ruling that the rights of a country to reclaim an integral part of its cultural heritage trump those deriving from commercial interest and gain.

Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the court ruling was of "enormous legal importance" and a major victory in the fight against the illegal antiquities trade that robs countries of cultural and historical treasures.

"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," Mendoni said.

Sotheby's had listed the horse, which is 14 centimeters tall, for auction two years ago, asking between $150,000 and $250,000 for its sale.

Suspicious of its provenance, the Greek government intervened three days before its May 2018 auction, ordering the sale to stop because the bronze statuette had been found in the records of Robin Symes, a British art dealer considered to be among the world's leading traffickers of looted antiquities.

Symes is under investigation by Greek and Italian authorities for allegedly playing a pivotal role in trafficking stolen artifacts to private collectors and museums in the West. While convicted by a British court in 2005 and sentenced to two years in prison for lying about the extent and value of his antiquities collection, estimated to be worth more than 125 million British pounds at the time, the 81-year-old has never stood trial or been convicted of illicit antiquities trading.

In addition, officials said in a detailed protest letter to Sotheby's, that the bronze horse lacked the kind of paper trail that typically accompanies ancient artifacts legally exported out of Greece.

Sotheby’s pulled the statue from its auction.

It quickly went on the offensive, though, launching an unprecedented legal crusade against the Greek government, insisting that the bronze horse was legally obtained by the family of the late collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet in 1973 for 15,000 British pounds.

It also demanded the contested sale proceed -- a request the U.S Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected this week, siding with Greece. In its ruling, the court said Greece was immune from any legal action from Sotheby's because the case in question concerned an issue of cultural heritage than a commercial dispute between rival business interests.

It was not immediately clear whether Sotheby's would drop its legal fight.

"While we are disappointed with the decision," the auction house said in a statement, "it does not impact what is at the heart of this matter -- there is, and remains, no evidence to support Greece's claim to ownership of the bronze sculpture.

'We, together with our client, are reviewing next steps."

Under Greek law, all antiquities found in the country are state property. Unable for decades to effectively police its vast sprawl of ancient sites and archaeological digs, though, Greece has seen many of its treasures plundered and secretly siphoned out of the country, often landing in the hands of prized collections and renowned Western museums.

In 2006, a high-gear restitution campaign forced the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to relinquish ownership of ancient works Athens proved had been illegally taken.

Together with authorities in Italy, Greece exposed how a network of prestigious museums, wealthy collectors and tony auction houses turned a blind eye to the illicit practices of dealers for years, supplying them ancient art and archaeological treasures.

The campaign remains hamstrung by a mire of legal difficulties, including producing proof of illicit antiquities smuggling.

Still, with countries across the globe increasingly pursuing the return of cultural treasures, experts believe the U.S. court ruling could mark a major game-changer for the antiquities market.

"New York courts have long sought to protect the marketplace for from being flooded with looted or stolen goods," said Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer for the Greek government involved in the case of the bronze statuette. "This decision enables foreign governments to continue communicating with art market participants to prevent the sale of illicit goods and protect consumers."

It would be "troubling" she said, "for auction houses or dealers to prevent foreign governments from inquiring about suspicious items on the market due to the fear of litigation."

Sotheby's was the first auction house in the U.S. to lodge suit against a foreign government to challenge its trade but others have followed.

Last year, Safani Gallery in New York, among the oldest galleries of ancient art in the United States, filed a lawsuit against Italy asking a federal judge to block Rome's bid to seize and repatriate an ancient marble statue of Alexander the Great.