Art dealer admits 'ancient gold bracelet' sold to rich sheikh was fake

Art dealer admits ‘2,000-year-old Afghan bracelet’ he sold to super-rich Qatari sheikh was FAKE in legal battle over seven items sold for £4.2million ‘which were made by a modern forger’

  • Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani says John Eskenazi duped him with forgeries
  • The sheik is suing Mr Eskenazi in the High Court for a refund for the seven works
  • He says he passed of modern fakes as historic works of art, such as a £1m statue
  • Mr Eskenazi, 73, has now admitted a golden serpent bracelet was a fake
  • But he insisted he believed the item of jewellery was genuine when he sold it 
  • And the world-acclaimed dealer denies other items he sold are forgeries  

A London dealer sued after selling £4.2million worth of ancient art to a super-rich Qatari sheikh has admitted to a court that at least one of the pieces was fake.

John Eskenazi, one of the world’s top dealers in Indian, Gandharan, Himalayan and south-east Asian works of art, is facing claims he ripped off Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thania by charging him £4.2million for counterfeit ancient statues and art.

The sheikh, whose £363million London home Dudley House is reportedly Britain’s most expensive private residence, bought seven pieces of art through a family company, after being told they had been created between 1,400 and 2,000 years ago and unearthed by archaeologists from caves where they had lain hidden for centuries.

They included a carved head of the god Dionysus, a £1.9million statue of the goddess Hari Hara, and a gold ‘serpent bracelet’ with turquoise and garnet inlay.

But he later demanded that the dealer take them back and give him a refund, claiming the works were not authentic.

During a High Court trial which began in July this year, Mr Eskenazi insisted that all the pieces were the genuine article.

But returning to court to continue the clash this week, the dealer’s lawyers told Mr Justice Jacobs that they admit the £113,000 serpent bracelet has now been shown by experts to be a forgery. 

The £113,000 gold serpent bracelet inlaid with turquoise and garnet has now been shown to be a fake. The serpent was sold to super-rich Qatari sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thania

Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani (pictured with the Queen in 2019) is suing John Eskenazi. He claims the art dealer sold him forged goods. But Mr Eskenazi insisted when he sold the rich Qatari sheikh the items that he believed they were all genuine

But Mr Eskenazi is still defending the claim, insisting that while he believed all the pieces were genuine, he did not offer a guarantee of authenticity when he sold them to the sheikh.

The court heard that Sheikh Hamad, 40, whose dinner guests have included the late Queen Elizabeth II and who arrived at court during the trial in a Bentley, paid around £4.2million 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 £150 million in a nine-month period’ on ancient artworks.

The seven objects in dispute are four carvings of heads, the Hari Hara statue, a Buddhist frieze and the serpent bracelet.

The bracelet was purchased in November 2014 for £113,000 ($125,000) and referred to in the invoice sent by Mr Eskenazi’s company as: ‘Serpent bracelet, Afghanistan, Circa 1st century BCE to 1st century CE, Gold with turquoise and garnet inlay’.

Mr Eskenazi, 72, and his company are now being sued by both QUIPCO and the sheikh personally over allegations that the artifacts, far from being ancient, are ‘the work of a modern forger’ and that Mr Eskenazi knew the £1.99 million Hari Hara statue was fake.

Sheikh Hamad says he 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.

The sheikh’s experts also claim the state of preservation of the objects d’art is too good to be true for their purported age.

Roger Stewart KC, for the sheikh, told the judge: ‘The claimants’ case is each of the works is a modern forgery, not an ancient object.’

He claimed 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 – the barrister claimed that the dealer ‘knew it not to be authentic’.

They are trying to force repayment of the £4.2million ($4.99million) they shelled out.

At trial, the dealer had insisted that in his opinion as an experienced expert in the field all the pieces were genuine.

But this week Andrew Green KC, for Mr Eskenazi, told the judge that having since heard competing evidence from art history and archaeology experts during the trial, Mr Eskenazi has reversed his position in regard to the serpent bracelet.

He and his company ‘accept that, in the light of the evidence, the serpent bracelet is likely to be inauthentic/a modern fake’, Mr Green said.

But the barrister said the dealer is maintaining his position in relation to all the other pieces.

‘Following the evidence at trial, (Mr Eskenazi and his company) accept that the expert evidence establishes that the serpent bracelet is not authentic; and for the other objects (except the Hari Hara), they accept that the expert evidence does not establish the authenticity of those objects,’ he added.

‘However, the correct conclusion is that the claimants have nevertheless failed to establish the inauthenticity of those objects.

The items included the marble head of the god Dionysus (left) and a £655,000 sculpture of the head of a Bodhisattva Buddhist deity (right)

‘For the Hari Hara, the expert evidence does establish that it is authentic.

‘Even if the court were to find that some/all of the objects were inauthentic, which it is bound to do for the serpent bracelet, given the above admission, the defendants contend that these were not sales by description (and) the contractual obligation on the defendants was that the descriptions of the objects reflected the honest and reasonable opinion/belief of Mr Eskenazi.

‘There was no breach of that contractual obligation for any of the objects,’ he said.

Mr Green explained the judge must decide ‘whether there was a contractual promise that each object was in fact genuine or whether the relevant standard is that of an honest and reasonable opinion/belief and if it is the latter, the factual question of whether Mr Eskenazi had reasonable grounds for his opinion/belief’.

‘The court is invited to conclude that the Hari Hara is authentic; and for the other objects, other than the serpent bracelet, the claimants have failed to establish that they are inauthentic/modern fakes,’ he concluded.

Earlier in the trial, Mr Stewart had told the judge, ‘All of the objects here, if genuine, are remarkable. They all vary from between 1,400 and 2,000 years old.’

He said 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.’

Mr Green had replied: ‘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.’

Mr Green had also 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’.

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.

Queen Elizabeth II reportedly commented on the house whilst having dinner with the sheikh in 2015: ‘This place makes Buckingham Palace look rather dull.’

The judge was hearing closing submissions in the case this week and will give judgment at a later date

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