New York gallery’s lawsuit against Italy over seized ancient bust dismissed

A judge has dismissed the New York-based Safani Gallery’s lawsuit against Italy over a seized bust of Alexander the Great. Questions had been raised as to whether the marble sculpture was excavated after Italy’s patrimony laws were established in 1909.

Acting on a lead from the Italian culture ministry, the US authorities seized the ancient bust in 2018 as “a stolen object, rightfully owned” by Italy. Safani Gallery’s owner, Alan Safani, immediately contested the forfeiture of the object, claiming that proper due diligence was conducted.

By the following year, Safani had enlisted Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyer David Schoen to argue that Italy’s immunity had been jeopardised when they prompted US law enforcement to seize the object. The lawsuit also claimed the return of the bust would be “unlawful” and requested that the court name Safani as its sole owner.

But District Judge Vernon Broderick ruled that Italy’s immunity to the lawsuit under the US’s Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA/1976) was still valid. “Italy’s relationship to the [District Attorney’s] office is analogous to someone who reports a crime or that something was stolen from them.” He concluded that the seizure was “part of a law enforcement investigation, i.e., for a public purpose.”

Dating back to 300 BC, the marble sculpture depicts Alexander the Great in the guise of the sun god Helios. It was excavated in the early 1900’s, although the exact date remains unclear. The bust first came to the market in 1974 at Sotheby’s, after which it remained in the hands of private collectors until 2017 when it was sold to Safani for around $152,625. However, no bill of sale for any pre-1974 transaction have been produced.

Safani’s lawyer, Schoen, was displeased with the ruling, stating “if Italy believes it has an honest claim to the piece, it should show up in court and prove it and let the court hear all the evidence and decide lawful title.” He added that “no collector or dealer who does her or his due diligence should have to accept having a piece bought in good faith, without any negative indicia, widely advertised and displayed for decades at fairs and auctions attended by Italian authorities and in books they monitor, summarily taken from him or her like this without any proof and without just compensation.

Leila Amineddoleh, the New York-based counsel representing Italy, declared “we were pleased with the court’s ruling that Italy did not lose its immunity; the judge’s opinion was clear and consistent with all relevant case law concerning the FSIA and its exceptions.”

The ownership of the artefact still remains unresolved.

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