Qatari sheikh sues London art dealer for fake ‘ancient statues’

In 2015, the Qatari sheikh became a vice president of the Friends of the Castle of Mey after a large donation to the late queen mother’s Highland Home.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thani is suing a London art dealer over claims that he was sold forgeries of ancient statues worth of $4.99 million.

Sheikh Hamad, the son of former Qatari prime minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalifa Al Thani, has taken action against John Eskenazi for selling him fake ancient art.

Sheikh Hamad spent a hefty amount to put his hands on seven supposed historical pieces, including a carved head of the ancient god Dionysus and a $2.6 million statue of the goddess Hari Hara – both of which are part of ancient Greek religion and myth.

The Qatari sheikh said he had been informed that the pieces had been created between 1,400 and 2,000 years ago before getting unearthed from caves by archaeologists, according to UK-based reports.

Sheikh Hamad later, allegedly, demanded the scamming dealer take the items back and provide a refund over inauthenticity claims.

The case was presented before London’s High Court, where a judge learnt that Sheikh Hamad called on experts to examine the pieces after growing suspicious and found bits of plastic embedded in the item, reports said.

The 72-year-old Eskenazi, allegedly considered a major dealer in places like India, Gandhara, Himalaya and in general South-east Asia, claimed they are “authentic”, slamming all allegations stacked up against him.

The case is being presented before Justice Jacobs at the High Court. The dealer is counter-suing for a “declaration that all the works – which were lined up in court before the judge – are real and authentic.”

The court heard that Sheikh Hamad paid approximately $5 million in 2014 and 2015 for seven pieces, allegedly, through Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company ( QIPCO).

Backing up his claims with “expert reports”, the Sheikh’s side declared that during examination ‘protruding plastic’ was uncovered embedded in one of the pieces.

The report defending the sheikh also states that “modern materials and chemicals suggestive of forgery” were discovered in some other pieces, suggesting that such ancient pieces are unlikely to be preserved in good quality.

Roger Stewart QC, defending the sheikh, allegedly told the judge: “The claimants’ case is each of the works is a modern forgery, not an ancient object.”

He informed the judge that only one known pre-7th century marble head from this region is in existence in the hands of a collector.

“Eskenazi has sold three. Your lordship will have to consider whether Eskenazi has been very lucky in receiving these miraculous objects and selling them to his clients, or whether they are not genuine objects,” he said.

He argued that Eskenazi was “negligent” in “not having a reasonable belief as to the authenticity of the objects sold.”

As for the Hari Hara goddess, sold to the sheikh for $2.2 million, the barrister claimed that the dealer “knew it not to be authentic,” adding that there was “said to be evidence of plastic” found in another piece, the Krodha head, when examined.

But Andrew Green QC, defending Eskenazi, told the judge: “Conservation and restoration treatments, particularly the more invasive and stringent methods used until the very recent past, self-evidently interfere with an object’s surface including any weathering patterns; and are likely to introduce foreign materials to an object, whether in the form of the residue of the tools used, modern materials used in restoration, the application of aesthetic deposits, or the removal of existing patinas.”

He argued that it is often “impossible” to ensure the plausibility of a piece’s authenticity and whether the intervention was the work of a restorer or a forger.

“It is wholly implausible that the defendants would risk destroying an impeccable reputation built up over many decades with museums, collectors and scholars by either carelessly or deliberately selling forgeries,” Eskenazi’s side argued.

“It is equally implausible that the defendants, who obviously knew the extraordinary value of Sheikh Hamad as a new customer, would risk destroying that burgeoning relationship by either carelessly or deliberately selling him forgeries,” they added.

Green told the judge that “carbon dating” is ineffective on stone artworks as it just reads the geological age. Arguing that cases made about the origin of “an object made 1,400 or 2,000 years ago is necessarily a statement of opinion because no-one of us was around 1,400 or 2,000 years ago.”

However, the argument of “no one was around” at the time can be seen as baseless as it implies that age of any historical piece cannot be calculated or hypothesised in the contemporary history field as the archaeologists or historians ‘were not around at the time’.

The judge is now set to hear competing evidence from art history and archaeology experts over the coming week.

Western-looted artefacts

In addition to the loss of innocent lives, conflict-ridden countries regularly face theft of cultural and heritage artefacts.

In Afghanistan, artefacts that are as old as 1,800 years have been looted, with many being sold in western markets between the 1990s and 2000s, according to a New York Times report.

British Museum curator St John Simpson told the American news outlet that all of the artefacts were illegally exported or stolen.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi court recently sentenced retired British geologist Jim Fitton to 15 years for intentionally smuggling artefacts dating older than 200 years out of Baghdad.

The British national was arrested in March at the Baghdad airport upon discovery of items in his luggage.

In 2019, the British Museum also announced plans to return 154 Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad that were taken in 2011.

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