Courts in Quebec, New York Asked to Block Ancient Sculpture’s Return to Iran

A limestone bas-relief sculpture from the ancient city of Persepolis, which was long held by a Montreal museum, is caught between authorities in the U.S., Canada, and Iran after it was seized by police at a New York art auction, Toronto Star reports.

Courts in Quebec and New York have been asked to block the return to Iran of a sculpture that was allegedly stolen from the ancient Persian city of Persepolis and housed in a Montreal art museum. The bas-relief limestone sculpture of a guard holding a spear is smaller than a sheet of writing paper, but it has sparked an international tug-of-war since it was seized from an art auction by police in New York in October.

The New York District Attorney’s Office was in court on Nov. 22, arguing that the piece of cultural heritage valued at $1.2 million should be returned to Iran, where it was “stolen” in 1936, according to a written motion provided to the Star.  Separately, in a Montreal court, lawyers for AXA Insurance Co. have asked a Quebec judge to rule that ownership of the sculpture was properly transferred from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to AXA, which they had every legal right to sell it to a British art dealer.

A request filed with the court states that Rupert Wace purchased it from AXA after the piece was recovered by Canadian police in 2014. It had been stolen several years earlier from the Montreal museum. Wace then sold a share of the sculpture to another British art dealer, Sam Fogg.

“Refusing to grant the … orders would have the effect of allowing the relief to be sent to Iran without a proper determination of ownership,” says the Quebec court request, which was first reported by La Presse in Montreal.

Quebec Superior Court Judge Babak Barin issued an order on Nov. 21 that the artifact should not be repatriated to Iran before courts can rule on who is the legal custodian of the limestone soldier. It is a temporary reprieve to allow lawyers to prepare their cases.

“The urgency of the matter is obvious,” Barin wrote.

Barin said in his order granting the temporary injunction that the Quebec court could hear the case because the ownership claim over the sculpture can be traced back to the Montreal museum.

“Conversely, the only connecting factor to the state of New York, other than the fact that the initial offer-to-sell-the-relief letter to the museum was sent from that state, is the accidental and transitional presence of the relief at the European Fine Arts Fair in New York City in October of this year,” he said.

He also sent a copy of the ruling to the judge in the U.S. case, in the hopes that the Canadian injunction would be respected until such time as ownership of the piece of art could be determined.

The 20-by-21-centimetre sculpture was seized as part of an ongoing investigation into the illicit trade of antiquities in New York. The probe has already resulted in seizures and repatriation of art worth more than $150 million.  It is being led by assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a classical scholar who also led the effort to recover priceless pieces of art and cultural heritage stolen during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

It was Bogdanos’s office that alerted Iran to the seizure of this sculpture on Oct. 27, according to documents filed in a New York court last month. Armed with a search warrant, police stormed into the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the European Fine Art Fair was being held.

Ebrahim Shaqaqi, an official with Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, a government-run agency, described it as “a treasured piece of a bas-relief that depicts an Achaemenid soldier, which had been stolen from Persepolis decades ago prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution,” according to the Tehran Times.

Persepolis is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site that dates to the founding of the Achaemenid Empire in 518 BC. The United Nations cultural agency said it is “among the archeological sites which have no equivalent and which bear unique witness to a most ancient civilization.”

How the sculpture got to where it is today, in the possession of the New York Supreme Court, is a colourful tale that spans decades.  It isn’t clear who took it from Iran in 1936, but the Quebec court file includes the typewritten invoice issued in 1951 when Paul Mallon, a New York-based Frenchman, sold the piece to Frederick Cleveland Morgan, president of the Art Association of Montreal, for the sum of $1,005.

It was then housed in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and regularly exhibited over a period of 60 years until Sept. 3, 2011, when it was stolen, according to Danièle Archambault, a museum archivist, whose affidavit was submitted in support of the insurance company’s ownership claim.

In September 2012, AXA paid out $1.18 million (Canadian) to the museum under the terms of its insurance policy. But the sculpture was recovered 16 months later, in January 2014, when the RCMP in Alberta and the Sûreté du Québec tracked it to an apartment in Edmonton. The condo owner, Simon Metke, told CBC News after the raid that he had bought the sculpture for $1,400 from a friend of a friend in Montreal, unaware of its true origins.

“I’m really glad that I was able to protect this thing and look after it, and it sort of feels like it may have come to me to be protected so that it didn’t get destroyed or lost,” Metke said.

Lawyers in Quebec claim that the sculpture was legally imported to Canada in 1951 before the country signed on to UNESCO agreements dealing with the trade of cultural heritage artifacts. Even if the sale was not legal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts became the legal owner under Quebec’s Civil Code after being in possession of the sculpture for three years, the court filing argues.

It may take some time to arrange an initial court hearing in Montreal on the requested ownership ruling. A follow-up hearing in New York on the request to block the repatriation of the sculpture is scheduled for Dec. 18.