Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem v. Christie's Inc.,
U.S. District Court - S.D. New York: Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem v. Christie's Inc., 98 CIV 7664 (August 1999)
The Patriarchate, an Orthodox order of monks based in Jerusalem, sought the return of the Archimedes Palimpsest ("Palimpset") sold for $2 million at auction at Christie's New York in October 1998. The Palimpsest is a tenth-century manuscript containing a copy of certain writings of the philosopher Archimedes. Through the centuries the Palimpsest had belonged to the Patriarchate's library, the Metochion, until it disappeared at the beginning of this century. In the 1920s a French businessman acquired the Palimpsest, which subsequently remained in the possession of his successors, until placed for auction at Christie's by the family.
The Patriarchate had previously filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the auction, which the district court rejected. The court granted the Defendants' motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the Patriarchate's suit for return of the Palimpsest.
The court noted initially that, pursuant to its diversity jurisdiction, it must apply the choice of law rules of the forum state (i.e. New York). Under New York law, the law applicable to adverse possession or prescription of a chattel, such as the Palimpsest, is determined by the local law of the state where the transfer is claimed to have taken place. Following this rule, the court held that French law should apply because the relevant transfer of title, namely the family's original acquisition of the Palimpsest, had occurred in France, where the French family alleged its acquisition under prescriptive possession. The court noted that the Patriarchate did not dispute the validity of the transfer from the French family to Christie's, and thence to the purchaser, but only argued that the French family had never obtained legitimate title to the Palimpsest. The court rejected the Patriarchate's contention that New York should apply, on the grounds that: (1) it was based on public policy arguments rather than on legal principles; and (2) the French law's provision of diminished protection for original owners did not violate "fundamental notions of justice or prevailing concepts of good morals" that would trigger the application of New York law.
The court noted that Article 2262 of the French Civil Code provides 30 years for actions to be brought for return of chattels in adverse possession and prescription cases, during which the possession must be "continuous and uninterrupted, peaceful, public, unequivocal, and as owner." Finding that nothing suggested that the French party had kept the Palimpsest hidden or had any motive to do so since the early 1970s, and finding no proof of such concealment in the earliest part of the prescribed period (i.e. the late 1960s), the court stated that the Patriarchate "has simply cast aspersions on the validity of the [French family's] title during the period of the late 1960s to early 1970s," and determined that the Patriarchate had failed to present any genuine issues of material fact that could overthrow the motion for summary judgment.
The court made clear that even had New York law applied, the defendant's laches defense would have barred the Patriarchate's claim because the Patriarchate was not diligent "at all" in searching for the Palimpsest for almost seventy years. The court noted a divergence between Second Circuit and New York state approaches, whereby the New York Court of Appeals applied the laches defense, while the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has based its decisions on the statute of limitations doctrine, in which the owner's diligence is not at issue. The court stated that the laches defense, as permitted in New York state courts, can limit the possibility of extreme delay before plaintiffs pursue their claims. Moreover, in the context of claims of lost or stolen works of art or cultural artifacts, the doctrine of laches safeguards the interests of a good faith purchaser of lost or stolen art by "weighing in the balance of competing interests the owner's diligence in pursuing his claim." BM
Download in Adobe pdf format http://www.nysd.uscourts.gov/courtweb/pdf/99-04869.PDF