A London art dealer is being sued over claims he ripped off a super-rich Qatari sheikh by selling him £4.2m worth of ‘fake’ ancient statues.
John Eskenazi is accused of scamming 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 carved head of the god Dionysus and a £2.2m statue of the goddess Hari Hara.
He said he was told they had been created between 1,400 and 2,000 years ago before they were unearthed by archaeologists after being hidden in caves for centuries.
But Sheikh Hamad, whose London home Dudley House is reportedly Britain’s most expensive private residence, later demanded that the dealer take them back and give him a refund, claiming the works were not authentic.
The Queen reportedly commented on the £330million house whilst having dinner with the sheikh in 2015: ‘This place makes Buckingham Palace look rather dull’.
The High Court heard Sheikh Hamad had the pieces examined after purchase by experts having grown suspicious, and found evidence they were forgeries, with modern materials including bits of plastic embedded in one of the items, a grotesque clay head.
His also claim the state of preservation is too good to be true for their purported age.
John Eskenazi has denied all the claims in the High Court writ and is fighting the case
Sheikh Hamad Al Thani outside London’s High Court for the hearing over the artworks
The Roll royce in which Sheikh Hamad Al Thani arrived at London’s High Court for his case
Mr Eskenazi, 72, who is one of the world’s top dealers in Indian, Gandharan, Himalayan and South-east Asian works of art, says they are authentic and denies all claims of wrongdoing.
He and his company are now being sued by both his family company and the sheikh personally over claims that the artifacts, far from being ancient, are ‘the work of a modern forger’ and that Mr Eskenazi knew the most expensive one was fake.
They are trying to force repayment of the £4.2m ($4.99m) they shelled out.
But Mr Eskenazi is presenting his own expert evidence to Mr Justice Jacobs at London’s High Court and is counter-suing for a declaration that all the works – which were lined up in court before the judge – are real and authentic.
The court heard that Sheikh Hamad, 40, who arrived at court in a Rolls Royce, paid around £4.2m in 2014 and 2015 for seven pieces through the family company he heads up, QIPCO (Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company).
It was part of a spending spree, during which, through the company, Sheikh Hamad ‘spent £150m in a nine-month period’ on ancient artworks.
He is relying on expert reports which state that on examination ‘protruding plastic’ was found embedded in one of the pieces, an unfired clay head of a demonic being, known as the Krodha.
His expert reports also state that modern materials and chemicals suggestive of forgery were found in several other pieces and that their state of preservation is too good to be true.
Sheikh Hamad’s family home, Dudley House, in Park Lane, London, which dates from the 1700s, is a 44,000-square-foot, 17-bedroom pile
House to house: Does Sheikh Hamad’s Dudley House really make Buckingham Palace seem ‘rather dull’
Cost when bought: £37million
Value now: £330million
How big: 44,000 sq ft
Renovation costs: £75million estimated
Number of bedrooms: 17
Size of biggest gallery: 81 foot
Cost when bought: £21,000
Value now: £1,3billion
How big: 828,821 sq ft
Renovation costs: £369million most recent
Number of bedrooms: 240
Size of the biggest gallery: Queen’s Gallery is an entire building
Roger Stewart QC, for the sheikh, told the judge: ‘The claimants’ case is each of the works is a modern forgery, not an ancient object.
‘All of the objects here, if genuine, are remarkable. They all vary from between 1,400 and 2,000 years old.’
He told the judge that there is only one known pre-7th century marble head from this region in existence in the hands of a collector.
‘Mr Eskenazi has sold three. Your lordship will have to consider whether Mr Eskenazi has been very lucky in receiving these miraculous objects and selling them to his clients, or whether they are not genuine objects’.
He claimed that Mr Eskenazi was ‘negligent’ in ‘not having a reasonable belief as to the authenticity of the objects sold’.
And in relation to one of them – a statue of a goddess known as the Hari Hara he sold to the sheikh for $2.2m – the barrister claimed that the dealer ‘knew it not to be authentic’.
The barrister added that there was ‘said to be evidence of plastic’ when the Krodha head was examined, proving it was 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, self-evidently interfere with an object’s surface including any weathering patterns; and are likely to introduce foreign materials to an object, whether in the form of the residue of the tools used, modern materials used in restoration, the application of aesthetic deposits, or the removal of existing patinas.
A Top Trumps style look at the two properties owned by the Queen and Sheikh Hamad
The Queen watches the parade ring before the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes with Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Than at Ascot in October 2013
Sheikh Hamad’s opulent Dudley House home looks like a palace an d is packed with treasures
‘It is often impossible to ascertain intervention whether was the work of a restorer or a forger.
‘It is wholly implausible that the defendants would risk destroying an impeccable reputation built up over many decades with museums, collectors and scholars by either carelessly or deliberately selling forgeries.
‘It is equally implausible that the defendants, who obviously knew the extraordinary value of Sheikh Hamad as a new customer, would risk destroying that burgeoning relationship by either carelessly or deliberately selling him forgeries.’
He put to Sheikh Hamad in the witness box that he had simply ‘decided you wanted your money back’ after a rival dealer had questioned the origin of the pieces and had then ignored expert evidence which backed the authenticity of the carvings in bringing his claim.
The Sheikh denied those claims.
Mr Green told the judge that carbon dating doesn’t work on stone artworks as it simply reads their geological age, adding that any claim made about the origin of ‘an object made 1,400 or 2,000 years ago 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 art history and archaeology experts over the coming week.
Sheikh Hamad’s father Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalifa Al-Thani was Qatar’s prime minister from 1996 to 2007 and he is the eldest of six brothers. He studied political science at Coventry University.
His family home, Dudley House, in Park Lane, London, which dates from the 1700s, is a 44,000-square-foot, 17-bedroom pile.
It features an 81-foot-long picture gallery and a 50-foot ballroom and is London’s only surviving aristocratic palace that still functions as a private, single-family home.
Qatari prince HH Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani was once described as the ‘insatiable treasure hunter of world civilizations’.
He is the cousin of the emir of Qatar and is said to have become interested in art aged just six years old.
His mother had taken him to the Louvre as a young child, which sparked his interest in beautiful objects and paintings.
Aged 18 he began buying up precious artefacts and is said to have items totaling nearly 6,000, which he loans out to some museums.
In 2015 he was made a vice-president of the Friends of the Castle of Mey after a large donation to the late Queen Mother’s Highland Home.
His involvement in horse racing has seen him cross paths with the Queen on a number of occasions.
He even hosted her at his much admired Dudley House home.
The trial continues.