A New York gallery won’t return an ancient bust of Alexander the Great to Italy without a legal fight.
On Wednesday, Manhattan’s Safani Gallery filed a suit against the Republic of Italy in the city’s Southern District Court with the hope of stopping the bust—an artifact dating back to the first century—from heading back to its home country. Dubbed the Head of Alexander, the sculpture was seized last February from the gallery by the Manhattan district attorney amid allegations that it had been excavated and illegally exported from Italy in violation of the country’s cultural heritage law.
In the suit, the gallery claimed that the return of the object to Italy was “unlawful” and demanded that the court declare Safani the sole owner of the bust.
The bust portrays Alexander the Great as Helios, the god of the sun in Greek mythology, and it may have been first discovered at the site of the Roman Forum in the early 1900s. Italian provenance laws encompass any artifact excavated from the country after 1909.
According to the suit, the sculpture first appeared at auction at Sotheby’s in 1974, as property of Armenian antiquity collector Hagop Kevorkian. It was bought for $650, and was later purchased from the buyer by an unidentified private collector for $92,500. A London-based dealer sold the work to Alan Safani of Safani Gallery for $152,625 on June 20, 2017.
In the suit, Safani alleges that the head’s provenance was thoroughly investigated and found legitimate by the Art Loss Registry. The Italian government and the Manhattan district attorney have previously argued otherwise.
“To date, no one has ever produced any records of bill of sale for any pre-1974 transaction for the Head of Alexander. Nor has anyone ever produced any records or invoice for the 1974 sale by Sotheby’s,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos wrote in July 2018. “Nor has any party ever produced an export visa or stamp authorizing the Head’s removal from Italy.”