Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani is suing one of London’s most established art dealers, John Eskenazi. Sheikh Al-Thani believes that Eskenazi has sold him seven fakes, for which the Sheikh paid £4.2 million in 2014 and 2015.
Al-Thani owns a hugely impressive collection of art, of over 6,000 items, some of which are up to 6,000 years old. Only last year, his involvement in the art world made headlines with the announcement of his generous donation of around €20 million to help with the restoration of the Hôtel de la Marine, an eighteenth-century building on Place de la Concorde in Paris. Hôtel de la Marine was the city’s first museum when Louis XV deposited his collection there in 1776 and allowed the public to visit one Tuesday a month. Al-Thani not only paid for the restoration, but also lent an important selection from his own collection to be exhibited there, including a Western Asia Minor sculpture dating to between 3300 and 2500 BC and a terracotta head from Nigeria dating to around the beginning of the first millennium.
But now Al-Thani’s activities in the art world have caught the media’s attention for a different reason entirely. He believes Eskenazi has sold him a number of items which he claims are fakes, including a carved head of the god Dionysus and a statue of the Hindu goddess Harihara worth $2.2 million. Al-Thani’s lawyers say that he paid “top dollar” for works that he was told had been uncovered by archaeologists and were between 1,400 and 2,000 years old. Having purchased them, Al-Thani said he had had the works examined by external experts, who found evidence of forgery, including the presence of modern materials such as plastic embedded in the objects. His legal team are thus suggesting not only are these works dated incorrectly, but they are “the works of a modern forger”. They are demanding the court order a repayment of £4.2 million.
John Eskenazi denies these allegations. His legal representation, Andrew Green QC, has argued that, “conservation and restoration treatments, particularly the more invasive and stringent methods used until the very recent past, self-evidently interfere with an object’s surface including any weathering patterns; and are likely to introduce foreign materials to an object, whether in the form of the residue of the tools used, modern materials used in restoration, the application of aesthetic deposits, or the removal of existing patinas”. Andrew Green even suggested that the sheikh had simply decided he “wanted his money back”. The initial purchase of these objects was part of significant spending spree by the sheikh, in which he spent £150 million in a nine-month period on ancient artworks.
This is not the first time Al-Thani has accused dealers of selling him fake works. Earlier this year, he claimed that the New York and Switzerland based dealer Phoenix Ancient Art had sold him fake statues for a total of $5.2 million. After a set-back in settlement discussions (where US customs seized items intended to replace the pieces in dispute), Al-Thani issued a claim in England against the dealer. The limitation period in England and Wales for the claim was due to expire on 24 January 2020. The claim was issued on 22 January. Under the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR), claimants have four months to serve a defendant within England and Wales, and six months to serve a defendant who is based abroad. Service attempts were disrupted by the impact of Covid on the Foreign Process Section of the Court, and the claimant obtained a Court order allowing an extension of time for service. However, Phoenix then applied to the Court to set aside the order, and the Court agreed (meaning the claimant’s claim was served ‘out of time’ and so was barred). Al-Thani appealed this decision, but the Judge found that the main reason for the breach was the delay between January and May 2020, and no blame should be placed on the impact of the pandemic on the FPS. As such, the Judge refused to allow a time extension. The authenticity claims on the works in this case remain unresolved.
The case against John Eskenazi is ongoing.