A flag flies outside Sotheby’s auction house on New Bond Street ahead of a preview of ‘The Midas Touch’ auction in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Sotheby’s Left Holding $16 Million Antique Jar in London Dispute

(Bloomberg) -- Two antique collectors are disputing the ownership of an early Islamic crystal jar worth as much as 12 million pounds ($16 million).

Iranian trader Ali Saatsaz Jeddi says the jar is his after he bought it from a friend in Dubai in 2010, while collector Ali Pishvaie says that he holds part ownership. Sotheby’s is stuck in the middle of the London court case after the dispute arose when Pishvaie dropped off the piece for auction in 2012.

Jeddi says he paid his old associate, Naser Mohammadi, $150,000 for the jar, and in court filings, Mohammadi said he bought it for $7,000 years earlier in a bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan. According to Jeddi, he asked Pishvaie to sell the jar at auction in 2012, and agreed to pay him a 25 percent commission.

Pishvaie said that he has never acted as Jeddi’s agent -- a denial that Jeddi says is a “blunt lie.” Pishvaie said his father bought the jar in the mid-50s and transferred it to Europe as part of a larger collection a decade or so later. In 2011, he sold it to Jeddi in part exchange for an antique bronze object, in an agreement that allowed him to keep quarter ownership, Pishvaie said.

London courts often hear lawsuits over ownership and valuations of artworks and artifacts in the opaque art world. Last year, the High Court heard a suit on the sale of two portraits that once belonged to Benito Mussolini’s finance minister, while a dispute over a 1954 Ferrari racing car was settled in 2016 after several lawsuits in the U.K. and the U.S. over its ownership. In 2015, Sotheby’s was cleared of being negligent over the valuation of an artwork which could have been painted by Caravaggio.

Early Middle East

The handleless jar is ornamented with birds and flowers. According to Sotheby’s documents, the piece’s importance comes because it connects Persian metalwork, early rock crystal production in the area around Basra, Iraq, and the decoration work from Egypt.

Jeddi, who lives in Tehran, wrote a letter to Sotheby’s in 2014 demanding the return of the jar, saying he was the sole legal owner, and that he no longer wanted Pishvaie to sell the jar for him. His court papers valued the item at as much as 12 million pounds.

Asked whether it had been dishonest to pay his friend Mohammadi a low price for the jar, Jeddi said through an interpreter at the trial that he had taken a risk on its value. In his field “it is acceptable that everyone can benefit from a deal based on his personal knowledge and the channels that are available to him for selling the item,” he said.

Oxford Report

Pishvaie, who is based in France, took the jar to Sotheby’s in January 2012, when it was valued at around 1.5 million pounds. The auction house later revised the estimate to between 5 and 7 million pounds after two University of Oxford academics produced a report saying that the jar was rare and similar to objects from the 10th century and earlier.

Pishvaie’s lawyers declined an email request for comment and Jeddi’s didn’t respond to an email and request in person in court. The hearing is due to end Friday.

The jar will remain at Sotheby’s until the end of the trial. The auction house said it wasn’t taking a position on either man’s claim, and that it “would comply with any court order relating to which of the claimants is entitled to possession of the piece.”

The artifact helps to “fill in the gaps in the story of a craft and tradition that represents the pinnacle of luxury artistic production at the heart of the medieval Islamic world,” according to a Sotheby’s marketing brochure.

The case is Ali Saatsaz Jeddi vs Sotheby’s in the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division.

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