NEW YORK—In the wake of pressure from the Spanish government and the threat of a lawsuit from the Church of Cordoba, Christie’s London halted the April 4 sale of five 18-and-a-half-foot-long by 8-inch-wide wooden larch beams that were part of the original roof of a 1,200-year-old Islamic mosque in Cordoba.
The auctioneer has refused to disclose the identity of the consignor beyond its description of the person as a “private European collector” who purchased the five heavily carved decorative beams outside Spain in 1998. The beams bore estimates ranging from £100,000/300,000.
According to the Christie’s catalogue for the Islamic and Indian arts sale, the five beams consigned to the auctioneer were found at the back of a barn in southern France in the 1950s, having left Spain before 1928. It is unknown who might have taken them out of a museum that also was used by the church as a residence, but the beams themselves are not “terribly heavy,” according to Jonathan Wheeler, the London attorney hired by the Diocese of Cordoba to stop the Christie’s sale.
The mosque, which had been built and expanded several times over a period of 300 years, starting in the mid-8th century, was reconsecrated as a cathedral in 1236, when King Ferdinand III captured the city from the Moors. The roof was replaced in the 18th century, after it had fallen into disrepair, and the beams were stored in a museum that was part of the mosque for 150 or more years. They were removed at some point, though the timing of that removal is in dispute.
Wheeler, who had been hired by the church on March 10, told ARTnewsletter he had met with Christie’s officials twice, providing evidence that the beams had remained in Spain at the mosque museum until at least 1946, “perhaps as late as 1975 or even 1993. In terms of Christie’s claim in its catalogue that the beams left the mosque by 1928, we definitely know that they were still there.”
The 1928 date is crucial, since a 1926 Spanish law established that objects of artistic and cultural importance cannot be sold or exported without the approval of the government. Wheeler noted that had Christie’s not stopped the sale of the beams, he would have asked the courts for an injunction on the basis that they belong to the Church of Cordoba.
Stepping into the dispute recently, Spanish culture minister Carmen Calvo has launched an investigation to ascertain how and when the beams left Spain.
Although the sale has been halted, the ownership of the beams remains to be determined, and “we may start proceedings within a couple of weeks” to return them to the church, Wheeler reports, adding that there is currently a “dialogue between my clients and [Spain’s] Ministry of Culture” concerning disposition of the beams. Christie’s also released a statement at the time of its withdrawal of the beams from sale, saying it “is in dialogue with the Spanish authorities.”