It's not more than 14 centimetres high but the little bronze horse has nevertheless caused an international storm. Auction house Sotheby's had planned to place the ancient artifact on sale on May 14th in New York. Estimates of its value range between €100,000 and €220,000.
But a few days before the auction was due, a letter from the Greek government called on the auction house to cancel the lot and return the object to Greece.
“There are no records in the archives of our service (i.e. an export permit from Greece) to prove that this figurine has left the country in a legal way,” states a letter to Sotheby’s, dated 11 May, from Elena Korka, head of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, reports The Art Newspaper.
Sotheby's responded by suing the Greek Ministry of Culture in a New York court to assert the legitimate ownership of the US proprietor.
But an expert on Greek antiquities and international law says the horse can be traced back to an auction in 1967 in Basel.
“The key resides in Basel,” Christos Tsirogiannis, a professor at the University of Glasgow, told Swiss news portal 20 Minutes. “It's from there that we have to trace the story,” added Tsirogiannis.
It is not entirely clear how the 8th century BC bronze horse from Ancient Greece reached Basel. In 1973, British art collector Robin Symes apparently sold the ancient artifact to its current owners in America, having acquired it at a Basel auction house in the late 1960s.
“The only clue we have is that the statuette appeared on three photos found in the archives of the British art dealer Robin Symes,” Tsirogiannis told 20 Minutes.
Symes, a disgraced former British art dealer, was involved in a criminal network trafficking illegal antiquities.
Italian and Swiss police found more than 45 crates of stoles artifacts during a raid on a Geneva storehouse owned by Symes in 2016, reports The Local Italy. That haul was worth more than €10 million.
In an interesting parallel, the head of an Ancient Roman statue, at one point traded by Symes, was returned to Italy by a prominent US museum in 2016, according to The Local Italy.