Sotheby’s fine-art brokers are taking Greece’s Ministry of Culture to court over the ownership of an ancient Greek bronze horse. The auction house has made this unusual legal attempt “to clarify the rights of legitimate owners” after a large number of claims by countries-of-origin of antiquities.

The report in the U.K.’s Financial Times newspaper claims that the lawsuit was filed in a New York court by the auction house and the owners of the antiquity, the family of the late collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet, who bought the 14cm high bronze horse in 1973. The value of the eighth century BC statuette is estimated at $150,000 to $250,000 and it was to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on May 14.

However, a day before the auction Greece’s culture ministry sent Sotheby’s a letter demanding it withdraw the ancient artefact from the sale and proceed with returning it to Greece. According to the letter seen by the Financial Times, the Greek authority claimed that there was nothing in its archives to indicate the object “had left the country in a legal way” and it reserved “the right to take the necessary legal action” to repatriate it.

The auction house pointed to a 1967 sale of the statuette at a public Swiss auction before it passed into an art dealer’s hands and from there to Barnets’ collection. Nonetheless, it pulled the statue from the sale in the last minute, since the existence of the claim damaged its marketability.

The auction house filed the lawsuit because the Greek ministry had not provided any clear evidence that the bronze horse had been removed from the country illegally. The lawsuit asks the New York court “to clarify the rights of legitimate owners of ancient works of art and protect clients against baseless claims”.

The report says that in previous such cases, owners and auction houses would typically withdraw an object from sale and negotiate behind closed doors with the accusing country to sell it the work.
However, in recent years countries with rich archaeological heritage have started to pursue cultural artefacts more aggressively. Italy, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and more recently China often intervene in transactions involving archaeological objects, the report says.