U.S. ruling over ancient bronze horse a 'huge victory' for Greece: minister

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece’s culture minister has hailed a U.S. court ruling over a disputed ancient horse figurine as a major victory that may help Athens and others fighting to reclaim antiquities.

An undated photo provided by the Greek Culture Ministry on June 10, 2020, shows an 8th century B.C. horse figurine of the Ancient Greek Geometric period. Greek Culture Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

Lina Mendoni said Tuesday’s ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had set a precedent and recognised countries’ sovereign right to call for the return of artefacts. However the court has left unresolved the fundamental issue of who owns the horse.

The Greek government wrote to Sotheby’s auction house in 2018 asking it to stop a sale of the 8th century BC statue, saying it was Greek national property, according to the text of the appeals court ruling.

Later that year, Sotheby’s and descendants of art collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet took the unusual step of suing the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports in the U.S. courts, seeking a declaration that the family owned the horse and that Sotheby’s could sell it.

A year later, a US judge rejected Greece’s effort to dismiss that lawsuit. But the appeal court ruled on Tuesday that Greece had been pursuing its sovereign rights, not commercial interests, when making the claim. So under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Greece could not face such a lawsuit.

The appeals court did not rule on who owned the statue.

Culture Minister Mendoni told Reuters TV: “Greece has clearly achieved a huge victory - a legal precedent, a judicial precedent, has already been created, and through Greece, it favours all countries from which cultural goods are illegally exported.

“In the same decision, it is recognised that the claiming of cultural rights by a country, by Greece in this case, concerns a sovereign issue, an issue of sovereign rights. This is very, very important,” she added.

Sotheby’s said on Wednesday it was disappointed by the ruling. “There is, and remains, no evidence to support Greece’s claim to ownership of the bronze sculpture. We, together with our client, are reviewing next steps,” it said.

Greece has been waging campaigns for decades for the repatriation of antiquities it says have been stolen or illegally excavated.

Its biggest is for the return of the Parthenon Marbles which are on display in the British Museum in London. The British Museum says the marbles were acquired legally.

Reporting by Deborah Kyvrikosaios; Editing by Andrew Heavens