SEIZURE OF A STOLEN ARTEFACT
In October 2017, investigators from the New York District Attorney's office seized a Persian limestone fragment from a booth at the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) at the Park Avenue Armory. The piece was being offered for sale by the company of London antiquities dealer Rupert Wace (Rupert Wace Ancient Art Ltd) which had co-purchased the piece in 2016 along with the company of fellow London dealer Sam Fogg (Sam Fogg Ltd).
Prior to this acquisition, the piece had been in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), having been donated by one of the Museum's major benefactors in 1951. In 2011, the piece was stolen from the Museum, but was recovered by Canadian police in 2014. Following the recovery, the MMFA opted to retain an insurance payout rather than recover the fragment and so the insurance company, AXA Insurance, became the owner. It was from AXA Insurance that Wace and Fogg had bought the fragment in 2016, before offering it for sale and bringing it to the Armory in October.
The significant factor for Assistant D.A. Matthew Bogdanos, whose office seized the piece, was its place of origin. It was a small bas-relief (8.3" x 8") of the head of a bearded soldier that had been removed from one of the walls at the ancient site of Persepolis, in modernday Iran. It is not clear how the fragment had been chiselled from the wall and taken out of Iran--or by whom--but it still appeared attached to the monument around the year 1930, and possibly as late as 1935, when a photograph had been taken showing the piece in situ. It was therefore likely, according to the Assistant D.A., to have been removed after the enactment by Iran in 1930 of its National Heritage Protection Act, which made it illegal to remove objects from national heritage sites (Persepolis was added to this list in 1931) and to transport antiquities out of the country.
The piece therefore lacked clean provenance: it had almost certainly been stolen from one of the Middle East's great sites. However, whilst it is unclear when and by whom the piece was removed from Iran, it surfaced in 1951 and was located for the next 60 years at one of Canada's principal art museums, the MMFA, and for a significant part of that time was on public view.
CONFLICT OF LAWS
The presence of the piece in Canada for such a significant period gives rise to a conflict of law situation: conflicting laws from two or more countries could potentially apply to the dispute. In this case, these would include the laws of Iran, the laws of the Canadian province of Quebec, where the MMFA is located, and the laws of New York where the piece was seized. Each of these legal systems could potentially point to a...