An enormous porcelain centerpiece that was among the top presale lots in Sotheby's Russian art sales last week is now at the center of a legal dispute, in which a Great Neck man claims that the dealer who put the piece up for auction stole it from his home and then told him he would be killed by the Russian mafia if he tried to recover it.
The day before the auction, Elyaho Malekan contacted Sotheby's through his lawyer, claiming that the consignor, Isak Sakai of Sakai Antiques, had stolen the centerpiece from him.
Sotheby's, which had put an estimate on the piece of $2 million to $3 million, reached an agreement with the parties to allow the sale to go forward, with the successful purchaser acquiring full title and Sotheby's holding onto the proceeds until the dispute was settled.
However, the centerpiece failed to sell, and now Mr. Malekan's lawyer has filed suit against Mr. Sakai and Sotheby's in New York State Supreme Court in Suffolk County.
The complaint claims that Mr. Sakai visited Mr. Malekan's home in 2006 to give him an estimate of the piece's sale value.
According to the complaint, Mr. Sakai took several parts of the centerpiece with him at that time to show to potential buyers, then later returned to the house and secreted away the other parts.
When confronted, the complaint continues, Mr. Sakai said he had sold the centerpiece for $250,000 to a member of the Russian mafia, who would kill Mr. Malekan or members of his family if they made trouble. (Reached by phone, Mr. Malekan's lawyer did not explain why his client did not contact the police.)
Despairing of recovering his piece, Mr. Malekan demanded to be compensated the $250,000. Because Mr. Sakai did not have the full amount in cash, Mr. Malekan accepted several small antique statues and two postdated checks.
Mr. Sakai's lawyer, Oscar Michelen, said that Mr. Malekan's claims were "ludicrous" and that his client had a written contract for the sale, done in both English and Farsi, which he said was Mr. Malekan's first language.
Mr. Michelen said that the checks and the statues totaled in value about $280,000 and that Mr. Sakai then invested $200,000 in restoring the centerpiece.
Mr. Michelen attributed Mr. Malekan's lawsuit to "seller's remorse" and said that he and his client planned to countersue, since the piece didn't sell.
Sotheby's is named in the suit because the centerpiece is still in its possession.
A spokeswoman said it was standard practice for the auction house not to release properties in these circumstances until a dispute is resolved.
However, she denied the suggestion that the piece failed to sell because of a title dispute, citing the agreement that was reached to allow the sale to go forward.
In the catalog, Sotheby's described the centerpiece, which is nearly 5 feet wide and 4 feet tall, as having been made by the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55).