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Turkey’s claim in the New York courts, seeking the ‘return’ of an ancient marble idol, the so-called Guennol Stargazer marble sold by Christie’s for $12.5m in April (ATG No 2307), raises fundamental legal issues, very relevant to the art world.

These issues apply to the UK as much as they do to New York.

Christie’s has entered a powerful ‘Memorandum of Law’ in support of their motion to dismiss Turkey’s ‘complaint,’ as it is described.

As Christie’s US lawyers put it:

“Turkey premises its case on the assertion that it did not know and could not reasonably have known where to find the rare and valuable Kiliya-type marble idol at issue… until being alerted… in March 2017… that the idol was in the possession of Christie’s and that Christie’s intended to include the idol in its Auction.”

Christie’s says that Turkey knew the idol was in New York by 1997, “twenty years ago and possibly earlier, and had all the information it needed to make a claim of ownership or, at the very least, to enquire”.

In summary, Christie’s says:

“Based on the knowledge Turkey had, its claims are barred by the Statute of Limitations or Laches.”

The Limitation Act 1980 is the application of the Statute of Limitations in England and Wales. ‘Laches’ is a principle of English Law that, in essence, means that if a claimant delays too much in asserting their rights, then they may lose the right to make any claim at all.

Christie’s is suggesting this is very much the case with Turkey, in its attempts to lasso the Stargazer.

Christie’s goes into huge detail seeking to show just how much Turkey was on notice and knew, since 1995, about the Guennol Stargazer and the repeated opportunities that Turkey had, for 20 years, to raise its hand, and yet did nothing.

Six-year limitation

In English law the basic limitation period under the Limitation Act is six years.

However, a central question is always, from when does the six-year period start running? On this there are detailed provisions and, even more annoying, many exceptions to the general six-year rule: for example, under Section 32 of the 1980 Act, where the claim is based on ‘fraud’ or ‘deliberate concealment of any relevant fact’, or relief from ‘the consequences of a mistake’, time freezes. The six years will not start to run until the claimant has discovered the fraud, concealment or mistake, or could with ‘reasonable diligence’ have done so.

“Turkey’s claim raises fundamental legal issues, very relevant to the art world

With art deals, where the wrong attribution, or any incorrect fact about a work of art, may not come to light until many years after purchase, this exception to the general rule, stopping time running, is often very useful indeed to a claimant.

Christie’s argues that Turkey could easily have discovered its right to make its claims 50 years ago, and hence is barred from pursuing the action now due to its delay.

The fight about who has title to the idol continues.

Milton Silverman is Senior Commercial Dispute Resolution partner at Streathers Solicitors LLP, London.