Last October, three police officers and two prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office stormed into the classy confines of the European Fine Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side, charged into the booth of Rupert Wace Ancient Art, and seized what they said was a stolen item. As well-to-do collectors gawked, the officers packed up a Persian bas-relief stone artwork depicting a guard with a shield, valued at $1.2 million, and carted it out of the Armory.
The authorities had reason to believe the limestone bas-relief, made between 510 and 330 B.C., had been looted from the ancient site of Persepolis in 1936. Rupert Wace insisted that he had purchased the relief from an insurance company that acquired it legally from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “This work of art has been well known to scholars and has a history that spans almost 70 years,” he said in a statement to the New York Times. “We are simply flabbergasted at what has occurred.”
But on Monday, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered that the eight-inch-by-eight-inch work be returned to Iran, presenting evidence that the bas-relief was indeed stolen from Tehran in 1936. Wace and his partner, Sam Fogg, agreed to give up the work after being presented with the backstory, but insisted they had acquired it legally; the insurance company came into possession of the work after it was stolen from the Montreal museum and then returned, allowing the institution to opt to keep the insurance money rather than take back the work. The decision was informed by the research of a new squad devoted to uncovering looted antiquities, and was aided by forensics experts and lawyers who specialize in the field.