Case Review: Sotheby’s v. Greece
July 28, 2020
By Jennie Nadel.
Case citation: Barnet v. Greek Ministry of Culture, No. 1:18-cv-04963 (S.D.N.Y. June 5, 2018).
- The Plaintiffs: Howard Barnet, Peter Barnet, and Jane Barnet, the trustees of the 2012 Saretta Barnet Revocable Trust and Sotheby’s Inc.
- The Defendant: The Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Hellenic Republic.
Howard and Saretta Barnet were avid art collectors. They collected artworks and antiques for over 40 years. In their collection was an 8th century B.C.E. bronze statue of a Greek Geometric period horse. Howard Barnet passed away in 1993, leaving the Bronze Horse in the hands of his wife, Saretta. In March 2017 Saretta passed away, following the transfer of ownership of the Bronze Horse to the 2012 Saretta Barnett Revocable Trust for her three children: Howard, Peter, and Jane, the trustees.
The 14-cm (5 ½ inch) Bronze Horse was put up for an auction scheduled for May 14, 2018, hosted by Sotheby’s. The auction was titled “The Shape of Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet”. Sotheby’s began public marketing for the sale on February 6, 2018, and posted videos and photographs of the upcoming auction around mid-April 2018. The full auction catalogue was posted online on April 25, 2018.
The 5 ½ inch Bronze Greek Horse in the Geometric Style
Halt Before the Auction
However, one business day before the Bronze Horse went up for auction, estimated to sell for around $150,000-250,000, Dr. Elena Korka, the head of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of the Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture and Sports, also known as Greece, sent an urgent message regarding the sale. The message sent to Sotheby’s stated that there are no records to indicate that the figurine left the country in a legal way. Greece demanded that the Bronze Horse be immediately withdrawn from the list of items to be auctioned and that Sotheby’s cooperate in the repatriation of the item back to the Greek state. The letter also referred to the involvement of Robin Symes, from whom the Barnets bought the Bronze Horse in 1973. At the time, Symes was a respected antiquities dealer in London but decades later faced accusations of trading looted antiquities.
Following Greece’s letter, Sotheby’s removed the Bronze Horse from sale as the accusations could potentially harm the sale of the piece, even though they claimed Greece had no legal right to the object. Subsequently, Howard, Peter, Jane, and Sotheby’s Inc. decided to take legal action against Greece, suing for interference without lawful justification and seeking declaratory relief to declare the respective rights of the parties regarding the Bronze Horse.
This is not the first time an object bought and owned by the Barnets has come under scrutiny for illicit trafficking. In 1999, Howard Barnet donated a black-figure Kylix (c.550-525 BCE) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This object was repatriated to the Italian Ministry of Culture in a transfer with the Met on February 21, 2006.
The Barnet Family and Sotheby’s, Inc. argued that many of these bronze horses in a similar style were fashioned throughout mainland Greece and Crete. Around 1,100 similar objects are currently known to be in existence, including an example at the Louvre in Paris. It was acquired in 1912 and is believed to have come from Laconia, Greece. Sotheby’s argues that hundreds of these figures are privately owned or housed in museum collections outside of Greece. The plaintiffs argue that Howard and Saretta Barnet bought the Bronze Horse for €15,000 (roughly $20,000) in November 1973 in good faith. Prior to the Barnets, the provenance showed that the Bronze Horse was sold at a public auction in Switzerland by Münzen and Medaillen, a European auction house, on May 6, 1967. The Bronze Horse was also featured in a book titled Les chevaux de bronze dans l’art geometrique grec (Bronze horses in geometric Greek art) by Jean-Louis Zimmerman at the University of Geneva in 1989.
Greece’s claim to the Bronze Horse impaired Sotheby’s ability to sell the figurine at auction.
Thus the Barnet family and Sotheby’s are seeking reimbursement from Greece for court costs, attorney’s fees, as well as whatever other reliefs are decided by the court. Sotheby’s lawsuit will mark the first time an auction house has sued a government. They ask that the judge “clarify the rights of legitimate owners.” So far no previous updates have been made since Sotheby’s asked Greece to come forward with facts of evidence on May 25, 2018.
Read the complaint here.
- Albertson, Lynda. “Auction Alert – Sotheby’s New York – a Bronze Greek Figure of a Horse.” ARCA. May 02, 2018. http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2018/05/auction-alert-sothebys-new-york-bronze.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed: arcablog (ARCAblog).
- Brown, Stephen Rex. “Sotheby’s Sues Greece over Bronze Horse Set for Auction.” NY Daily News, June 5, 2018. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-metro-sothebys-greece-horse-auction-20180605-story.html.
- D’Arcy, David. “Sotheby’s Sues Greece over Its Claim to Ancient Bronze Horse.” The Art Newspaper, June 7, 2018. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/sotheby-s-sues-greece-over-its-claim-to-ancient-bronze-horse.
- Kaplan, Isaac. “Sotheby’s Is Suing Greece, Its First Legal Action against a Country, over a Disputed Ancient Bronze Horse.” Artsy. June 6, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/news/artsy-editorial-sothebys-suing-greece-first-legal-action-country-disputed-ancient-bronze-horse.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Statement by the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Its Agreement with Italian Ministry of Culture.” News release, February 21, 2006. The Met. https://web.archive.org/web/20170309031813/https:/www.metmuseum.org/press/news/2006/statement-by-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art-on-its-agreement-with-italian-ministry-of-culture.
Disclaimer: This article is intended for general information only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advice. Opinions expressed are those of the author.
About the Author: Jennie Nadel was a 2018 Summer intern at the Center for Art Law. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University majoring in History of Art with a double minor in Museums & Society and Visual Arts. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com.