How ‘stolen’ African artefacts buyers may claim legitimacy after Sotheby’s suit against Greece

Daily Nigerian
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If the ongoing legal issue between one of the oldest auction houses, Sotheby’s, and the government of Greece, over an eight century Greek sculpture, ends in favour of the former, legitimacy of quite a number of looted ancient artworks may go to subsisting holders. In fact, some collectors of alleged looted artefacts of African origins would be bold to sell them at auctions.

Eight years ago, Sotheby’s was forced to cancel its sale of artefacts of Benin origin – including an iconic 16th Century Idia mask pendant – after a non-governmental group, Nigeria Liberty Forum (NLF), raised an alarm. NLF, led by Kayode Ogundamisi had written to Sotheby’s to stop the sale from consignors who were said to be the descendants of a British colonial military officer, Lionel Galway.

The controversial officer, Galway allegedly inspired the infamous Benin expedition of 1897, which led to the looting of thousands of artefacts from Benin Kingdom.Currently, Sotheby’s is testing the waters again, perhaps, to prove a point, which was not possible in 2010 with the Benin pieces consigned for auction by the Galway’s family. The Galways, being a direct beneficiary of looting act of their grandparents, perhaps, created a difficult case for Sotheby’s to fight.

Last week, Financial Times reported that Sotheby’s had sued Greece in a case over ownership of an ancient sculpture valued at $150,000 to $250,000. On May 14, this year, Sotheby’s listed the horse among other objects for sale from the collection of the late art lovers Howard and Saretta Barnet. But Greece halted the sale by sending Sotheby’s a letter demanding that the horse be removed. The government then said the five-inch horse had “been stolen from Greece in violation of Greek patrimony laws.”

According to a suit filed Tuesday, June 5, in Manhattan Federal Court, U.S, the auction house said, the Barnets bought the horse legitimately in 1973 for about $20,000. Sotheby’s suit asks judge to “clarify the rights of legitimate owners.” Through Sotheby’s suit, the family consignor of the now controversial artefacts argued: “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 acquisition of Benin objects by descendants of Galway may be different from how the Barnets family acquired the Greek sculpture. But whatever would make objects of 8th century become a subject of litigation in court could make any other artworks, particularly of ancient African origin vulnerable as well. And that Sotheby’s, a third party and auction house, is, strangely, the litigant, suggests possible flood of similar court cases in the future, depending on the judge’s verdict.

“Once Sotheby’s, through the Barnets, can prove with legally valid and admissible evidence in court that the art piece was bought in market overt, then the law suit against Greece shall succeed in favour of Sotheby’s auction house.”One of Africa’s top art collectors, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, in his response to a possible case involving African country in the future, said: “A market overt is a market traditionally conducted to buy and sell an affected item of sale by those qualified to sell the item and such sale in the market was conducted between sunrise and sunset under the established rules and customs of trade of that market. In my opinion, the onus will fall on Greece to prove otherwise, and to show that the loot of the art piece was of public knowledge that would ordinarily be expected of the Barnets to have been aware of which ignorance will not avail the Barnets at the point of their purchase of the artwork.”

Shyllon added that full awareness of pre-existing theft of the art piece at the point of purchase by the Barnets must be proven satisfactorily against the holders and Sotheby’s for Greece to have a case.

Does this suggest that any contentious art of African origin not announced as stolen before a subsisting holder bought it could be sold at auction or any other market? “No, no, no. The whole world is fully aware of the loot of African art,” Shyllon said. “So, the onus is on any seller of African traditional art to prove in court, if such a case arises, that the work he is selling, is not a part of the works, historically known to the whole world, to have been stolen or looted.”

In an international dispute of the Sotheby’s vs Greece kind, it is most unlikely that the UNESCO 1970 Convention on cultural objects, which favoured return of stolen artefacts to original owners, could be applied.One of the reasons UNESCO Convention has never been activated, according to experts, is because “international laws don’t have retrospective effect.”

For the Sotheby’s Vs Greece example, which could have involved an African country, Shyllon noted that the UNESCO convention of 1970 couldn’t even apply in court because it “sits on national requests.”Though, Shyllon, a lawyer and consultant on cultural objects, insists that Sotheby’s will have to prove legitimacy should an African nation finds itself in the Greece situation, he warned that it could be very tough.

“Do African nations have evidences to prove in court that the works in such possible suits, are part of those looted? Do African countries have dating resources or they would just rely on assumptions? I can tell you that Greece would need to trace with exactitude, that the works were looted, using their museum, universities and other institutions to prove their arguments and show the court that the Barnets, cannot claim not to be aware that the works were stolen works at the point of their purchase.”

Art critic and kin follower of African cultural objects, Jess Castellote said there should be no ambiguity about legitimacy claim, should an African party involved in such suit. He started by noting that artworks looted from the Benin palace in 1897 represents only a very small proportion of Nigerian objects illegally exported. “The many, many other artworks from Nigeria outside the country were not looted but, in most cases sold illegally, or stolen or sold legitimately”.However, Castellote also argued: “If it has been bought legitimately, it can’t be proven to be stolen, because it was not stolen.”Reminded that the legitimacy issue is exactly the reason why Sotheby’s is in court, Castellote warned:”This is an interesting case and the issue is really complex, with many angles.”