Qatari sheikh loses battle over $5.2m ‘fake’ ancient artefacts

Swiss dealer disputed claim that a 2,000-year-old bust of Alexander the Great was worthless

Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, CEO of Qipco. The company paid $3m for the statue of Alexander the Great and $2.2m for a statuette depicting Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Lajos-Eric Balogh/
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

A member of Qatar's ruling family has lost a legal claim against a fine arts company after paying $5.2 million for two ancient statues that he later claimed to be worthless modern fakes.

A company run by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, a cousin of the emir and a well-known international collector, bought a marble bust for $3m from a Swiss dealer. The bust was said to be Alexander the Great portrayed as Heracles, the son of Zeus, king of the Greek gods.

The 30 centimetre-high bust was described as being more than 2,000 years old. But four years after buying the statue, the Qataris concluded that it was a modern piece and "more or less worthless", according to London’s High Court.

The Doha-based Qatar Investment and Projects Holding Company (Qipco) also said that another reputed 1,600-year-old piece bought a year earlier from the same company for $2.2m – a statuette of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike – was also a modern remake and worth a tiny fraction of the price paid.

The sellers, Geneva-based Phoenix Ancient Arts, maintained that the two pieces were genuine but negotiated a deal to ensure the future goodwill of Qipco and its chief executive, Sheikh Hamad, in the exclusive market for high-value antiquities.

They agreed to exchange the two pieces for six other items amounting to a similar value. But the deal was never concluded after five of the replacements that were to be shipped from the US were held there by customs officers because of an undisclosed breach of export rules.

The failure of the swap led to continuing negotiations between the two parties. These failed to reach an agreement and Qipco launched legal action in London's High Court.

But a judge in February refused to give Qipco and Sheikh Hamad extra time to conclude the case because they had "failed to grasp the nettle of what had to be done in the time permitted".

The buyers appealed against the ruling, saying the judge failed to consider the impact of Covid-19 on the process.

But Mr Justice William Davis this week rejected the appeal, saying that the pandemic did not "come out of the blue" and there had been months of inactivity by Qipco’s lawyers in dealing with the dispute.

As there was no reason to conclude "any error of law or principle … the appeal must fail," he said in his ruling.

Monday’s ruling said that Sheikh Hamad had a "particular interest" in valuable artefacts with which the case is concerned.

Sheikh Hamad is the driving force behind a collection that has gone on display around the world, including at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

An exhibition - "Treasures from India, Jewels from the Al-Thani collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in October 2014. AFP

It includes thousands of sparkling pieces spanning centuries and includes jewellery from India’s Mughal empire and more than 3,000-year-old head of a royal figure from Egypt.

Updated: August 10, 2021, 2:51 PM