A London art dealer is being sued for defrauding a super-rich Qatari sheikh by selling him £4.2million of ‘fake’ ancient statues.
John Eskenazi is accused of defrauding art collector Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani with ‘forgeries’ of ancient art.
Sheikh Hamad says he paid “top dollar” for seven pieces, including a sculpted head of the god Dionysus and a £2.2million statue of the goddess Hari Hara.
He said he was told they were created between 1,400 and 2,000 years ago before being discovered by archaeologists after being hidden in caves for centuries.
But Sheikh Hamad, whose London home Dudley House is said to be Britain’s most expensive private residence, later asked the dealer to take them back and refund him, claiming the works were not genuine.
The Queen is said to have commented on the £330million home as she dined with the Sheikh in 2015: ‘This place makes Buckingham Palace look rather dull.’
The High Court has heard that Sheikh Hamad had the coins examined after purchase by experts who became suspects and found evidence that they were counterfeits, with modern materials including bits of plastic embedded in the one of the objects, a grotesque clay head.
He also claims that the state of preservation is too good to be true for their alleged age.
John Eskenazi has denied all claims in the High Court writ and is fighting the case.
Mr Eskenazi, 72, who is one of the world’s largest dealers in Indian, Gandharian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian artwork, claims they are genuine and denies all claims of wrongdoing.
He and his business are now being sued by his family business and the sheikh personally over allegations that the artifacts, far from ancient, are “the work of a modern forger” and that Mr Eskenazi knew the dearest was a fake.
They are trying to force repayment of the £4.2 million ($4.99 million) they paid.
But Mr Eskenazi presents his own expert evidence to Judge Jacobs at the High Court in London and counters a claim that all the works – which have been lined up before the judge – are real and authentic.
The court heard Sheikh Hamad, 40, who arrived at court in a Rolls Royce, paid around £4.2million in 2014 and 2015 for seven pieces through the family business he runs, QIPCO (Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company).
It was part of a spending spree in which, through the firm, Sheikh Hamad “spent £150m in nine months” on ancient artwork.
He relies on expert reports which indicate that upon examination “protruding plastic” was found embedded in one of the pieces, an unfired clay head of a demonic being, known as Krodha’s name.
His expert reports also indicate that modern materials and chemicals suggestive of counterfeiting have been found in several other rooms and that their state of preservation is too good to be true.
House to house: Does Sheikh Hamad’s Dudley House really make Buckingham Palace look ‘rather boring’
Cost to purchase: £37 million
Current value: £330 million
How big: 44,000 square feet
Refurbishment costs: estimated £75m
Number of bedrooms: 17
Size of the largest gallery: 81 feet
Cost to purchase: £21,000
Current value: £1.3 billion
How big is it: 828,821 square feet
Refurbishment costs: most recent £369m
Number of rooms: 240
Size of largest gallery: Queen’s Gallery is an entire building
Roger Stewart QC, for the Sheikh, told the judge: ‘The claimants’ case is that each of the works is a modern forgery, not an ancient object.
“All the objects here, if authentic, are remarkable. They all range between 1,400 and 2,000 years old.”
He told the judge that there was only one known pre-7th century marble head from this region in the hands of a collector.
“Mr. Eskenazi sold three. Your Lordship will have to examine whether Mr. Eskenazi was very lucky in receiving these miraculous objects and selling them to his customers, or if they are not genuine objects”.
He claimed that Mr Eskenazi had been “negligent” by “not having a reasonable belief as to the authenticity of the items sold”.
And regarding one of them – a statue of a goddess known as Hari Hara which he sold to the sheikh for $2.2 million – the lawyer claimed the dealer “knew that it was not authentic”.
The lawyer added that there was “evidence of plastic” when Krodha’s head was examined, proving it to be a modern fake.
But Andrew Green QC, for Mr Eskenazi, told the judge: ‘Conservation and restoration treatments, particularly the more invasive and stringent methods used until the very recent past, obviously interfere with the surface of an object, including any weathering patterns; and are likely to introduce foreign matter into an object, whether in the form of residues of used tools, modern materials used in restoration, application aesthetic deposits or removal of existing patinas.
“It is often impossible to know whether the intervention was the work of a restorer or a forger.
“It is utterly unlikely that the defendants would risk destroying an impeccable reputation built over many decades with museums, collectors and scholars by carelessly or deliberately selling counterfeits.
“It is equally unlikely that the defendants, who clearly knew of Sheikh Hamad’s extraordinary value as a new client, would risk destroying this budding relationship by carelessly or deliberately selling him counterfeits.”
He told Sheikh Hamad in the witness box that he had simply ‘decided you wanted your money back’ after a rival dealer questioned the origin of the parts and then ignored expert evidence that supported the authenticity of the sculptures by making his claim.
The sheikh denied these allegations.
Mr Green told the judge that carbon dating does not work on stone artwork because it simply reads their geological age, adding that any claims about the origin of an object made 1,400 or 2,000 years is necessarily a statement of opinion because no-one of us was around 1,400 or 2,000 years ago”.
The judge is now set to hear competing evidence from experts in art history and archeology over the coming week.