Attorney-General of New Zealand v Ortiz
Reference:  AC 1;  2 WLR 809;  2 All ER 93;  2 Lloyd's Rep 265
Court: House of Lords
Judge: Lords Fraser, Scarman Roskill, Brandon & Brightman
Date of judgment: 21 Apr 1983
Summary: Conflict of laws - personal property - unlawful export of artefact - forfeiture under New Zealand law
Instructing Solicitors: Allen & Overy
A Maori artefact – a pair of carved door panels – was exported from New Zealand, allegedly in breach of New Zealand law, and sold on to a collector in Europe. It came up for sale at a London auction house. The New Zealand government sued for its recovery, claiming that by virtue of New Zealand legislation it was the owner and entitled to possession of the artefact. Preliminary issues were ordered to be tried. Staughton J upheld the claimant’s case. The Court of Appeal held that the claimant had not acquired title, and expressed the view that the legal provisions would be unenforceable here in any event. The claimant appealed to the House of Lords.
(1) whether, on the facts alleged, the claimant had acquired title as a matter of New Zealand law and,
(2) if so, whether the foreign legal provisions could be enforced in this jurisdiction.
dismissing the appeal
(1) on the true construction of the New Zealand statutes, the claimant had not acquired title; that only occurred if an article was seized, and not automatically upon unauthorised export;
(2) no conclusion should be expressed by the House.
Despite its sympathy with the New Zealand government, the House was unable to uphold Staughton J’s interpretation of the legislation. This was no doubt a relief for the auctioneers (Sothebys) and the defendant, George Ortiz, the world’s foremost collector of antiquities. One of the more bizarre aspects of the case is that the reason the artefact went on sale in the first place was that Mr Ortiz’s daughter had been kidnapped, and he was selling part of his collection to raise money for the ransom. As it turned out, the sale of the other items raised enough and he decided not to sell: see  1 AC 14.