Safani Gallery's lawsuit against Italy over disputed antiquity dismissed in court

The New York-based gallery sued after US authorities seized a bust of Alexander the Great in 2018. The sculpture's ownership and future remains unresolved

The ancient bust of Alexander the Great Courtesy of Safani Gallery

The ancient bust of Alexander the Great Courtesy of Safani Gallery

A Manhattan gallery’s lawsuit contesting the seizure and return of an ancient bust of Alexander the Great (around 300BC) has been dismissed, after a New York judge ruled in Italy’s favour.

The suit, which was filed by the well-known Safani Gallery and led by Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyer David Schoen, was instigated in November 2019, a year after the antiquity was seized by New York police. It set out to block the object’s forfeiture and seek damages for the seizure.

Key to the ruling was whether the Italian authorities were immune from being sued under the US’s Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA/1976).

Whilst the gallery claimed this immunity was jeopardised, namely by the Italians having contacted and prompted US law enforcement’s seizure, District Judge Vernon Broderick, was clear: "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 added that the seizure was also "part of a law enforcement investigation, i.e., for a public purpose."

The marble sculpture, which depicts the classic ruler as the god Helios, is thought to date back to 300BC. Questions were raised as to when it was excavated or, more specifically, whether it was excavated after 1909, the date from which Italy’s patrimony laws were established.

The artefact first came to the market in 1974 at Sotheby’s and moved around private collectors until sold by a London-based dealer, Classical Galleries, to Alan Safani (of the eponymous gallery) in 2017, for around $152,625. Previous to this, the bust is reported to have been in a number of collections, including that of the Armenian-American archeologist and collector Hagop Kervorkian.

The Safani Gallery, which was established in 1950 and is a regular Tefaf exhibitor, argues it carried out due diligence research.

“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,” says Schoen, the Alabama-based lawyer representing the gallery.

He adds: “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.”

Leila Amineddoleh, the New York-based counsel representing Italy, says: “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 antiquity remains in dispute and its future unresolved.