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UNITED STATES v. AN ANTIQUE PLATTER OF GOLD

November 14, 1997

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff, against AN ANTIQUE PLATTER OF GOLD, KNOWN AS A GOLD PHIALE MESOMPHALOS, C. 400 B.C., Defendant-in-rem. MICHAEL H. STEINHARDT, Claimant. REPUBLIC OF ITALY, Claimant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: JONES

 BARBARA S. JONES

 UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 This case involves the forfeiture of an antique gold platter known as a phiale mesomphalos (the "Phiale"). Pending are claimant Michael H. Steinhardt's and plaintiff United States of America's cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, summary judgement is granted to the United States.

 FACTS1

 The defendant-in-rem is a 4th Century B.C. antique gold platter of Sicilian origin. Its circuitous path to the United States began sometime around 1980, and culminated in the current forfeiture action.

 In 1980, Vincenzo Pappalardo, a private antique collector living in Catania, Sicily in Italy approached Dr. Giacomo Manganaro, a professor of Greek history and Numismatics, for an expert opinion regarding the authenticity of the Phiale, which was in Pappalardo's collection at the time. The Phiale had an inscription along its edge, written in a Greek Doric dialect that had been spoken in the ancient Greek-Sicilian colonies. Based on that inscription and his own study, Dr. Manganaro concluded that the Phiale was authentic and of Sicilian origin. *fn2"

 Later in 1980, Pappalardo traded the Phiale to Vincenzo Cammarata, a Sicilian coin dealer and art collector, for art works valued at about 30 million Italian lire (approximately $ 20,000). *fn3"

 In 1991, Cammarata showed the Phiale and a gold-plated silver cup to Silvana Verga, an employee of the Monuments and Fine Arts Bureau in Palermo, Sicily, and to Enzo Brai, an Italian photographer. Cammarata told Verga and Brai that the Phiale and silver cup had been found near Caltavuturo, Sicily during the completion of some electrical work by an Italian utility company. *fn4"

 Veres brought the Phiale to the attention of Robert Haber, *fn6" an American art dealer and owner of Robert Haber & Company Ancient Art in New York City. *fn7" In November, 1991, Haber traveled to Sicily to meet Veres and to see the Phiale in person. *fn8"

 Haber became interested in the Phiale and believed that claimant Michael Steinhardt, a client of his, might be interested in acquiring it. *fn9" Haber had previously sold Steinhardt 20 to 30 objects, totaling $ 4 million to $ 6 million in sales. *fn10" Haber told Steinhardt that the Phiale was the twin of one belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and that its seller was a Sicilian coin dealer. *fn11"

 Thereafter, Steinhardt, with Haber as an intermediary, agreed to purchase the Phiale. Under the final terms of the agreement, as incorporated in a telefax dated December 4, 1991, Steinhardt agreed to pay 1.3 billion lire (over $ 1 million) in two equal wire transfer installments plus a 15% commission fee for the Phiale. In total, Steinhardt agreed to pay approximately $ 1.2 million to acquire the Phiale, the first installment of which would be wired to Credit Suisse, New York in favor of Veres' Stedron account at Bank Leu in Zurich, Switzerland. *fn12"

 In addition, a one page document entitled "Terms of Sale" and signed by Veres provided that "if the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser." *fn13" The Terms of Sale further provided that "[a] letter is to be written by Dr. Manganaro that he saw the object 15 years ago in Switz." *fn14"

 On December 6, 1991, Steinhardt wired the first money transfer installment from his account in New York to Veres' Stedron account *fn15"

 On December 10, 1991, Haber flew from New York to Zurich. From there he traveled across the Swiss Alps to Lugano, Switzerland, a town near the Swiss-Italian border that is about a three-hour car drive from Zurich. *fn16" On or about December 12, 1991, Haber took possession of the Phiale from Veres. *fn17" The transfer was confirmed in a commercial invoice signed by Veres and issued by Stedron, describing the object as "ONE GOLD BOWL - CLASSICAL . . . DATE - C. 450 B.C. . . . VALUE U.S. $ 250,000." *fn18"

 On December 13, 1991, Haber sent a two-page fax to Larry Baker at Jet Air Service, Inc. ("Jet Air"), Haber's customs broker at J.F.K. International Airport in New York. The fax included information about Haber's return flight and a copy of the commercial invoice for the Phiale. *fn19"

 Jet Air, in turn, prepared two Customs forms (collectively the "Customs forms"). First, Jet Air prepared an Entry and Immediate Delivery form (Customs Form 3461) to obtain release of the Phiale by a Customs inspection team prior to formal entry. This form listed the Phiale's country of origin as "CH," the code for Switzerland. Second, Jet Air prepared an Entry Summary form (Customs Form 7501), which also listed the Phiale's country of origin as "CH." In addition, this form listed the Phiale's value at $ 250,000, despite the fact that it had just been sold for over $ 1 million. The form made no mention of the Phiale's Sicilian origin or of its Italian history. Haber was listed as the importer of record. *fn20"

 On or about December 14, 1991, Haber returned from Lugano to Zurich. *fn21" On December 15, 1991, Haber flew from Geneva to J.F.K. International Airport in New York carrying the Phiale. From there, he entered the United States with the Phiale. *fn22"

 On January 6, 1992, Haber or Steinhardt consigned the Phiale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to determine its authenticity. The museum declared the Phiale authentic and returned it to Haber or Steinhardt on January 24, 1992. *fn23"

 On January 29, 1992, Steinhardt wired the second installment from his New York account to the Stedron account. On March 11, 1992, Steinhardt wired Haber's commission of $ 162,364 to the Stedron account. The commission price had been determined by taking 15% of the purchase price in lire and converting the amount to dollars. *fn24"

 From 1992 to 1995, Steinhardt possessed the Phiale and displayed it in his home.

 PROCEDURAL HISTORY

 On February 16, 1995, the Italian Government submitted a Letters Rogatory Request to the United States pursuant to the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters seeking assistance in (1) investigating the circumstances surrounding the exportation from Italy of the Phiale and its subsequent importation into the United States, and (2) confiscating the Phiale so that it could be returned to Italy.

 On November 9, 1995, agents of the United States Customs Service, acting pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by Chief Magistrate Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, seized the Phiale from Steinhardt's home in New York City. Magistrate Judge Buchwald issued the warrant pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 545 and to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a, finding that the Government had shown probable cause to believe that the Phiale was subject to civil forfeiture.

 On December 13, 1995, the United States filed the current civil forfeiture action, seeking forfeiture of the Phiale pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§ 545 and 981(a)(1)(C) and to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c). The Government's Complaint, as amended on February 13, 1995, alleged that the Phiale had been imported illegally into the United States due to the materially false statements provided by Haber in the Customs forms relating to the Phiale's country of origin. In addition, the Complaint alleged that the Phiale had been exported illegally from Italy pursuant to Article 44 of Italy's Law of June 1, 1939, No. 1089, regarding the Protection of Objects of Artistic and Historic Interest. *fn25"

 On December 26, 1995, Steinhardt filed the pending motion for summary judgment against the United States in the forfeiture action, claiming that the Phiale is not subject to forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. §§ 545 or 981(a)(1)(C) or under 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c). Specifically, Steinhardt contends that any alleged misstatements by Haber at the time of the Phiale's importation were not material, as required by the statutes. Steinhardt further asserts that he is an innocent owner as a matter of law under each of the ...


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