Case of the Day: Wei Su v. Sotheby’s

Zhou Zha Hu

The case of the day is Wei Su v. Sotheby’s, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. 2018). Wei claimed that he owned the Zhou Zha Hu, a ritual wine vessel dated to the 9th or 10th century BCE. His agent, Hai Juan Wang, entered into a consignment agreement with Sotheby’s, the auction house. But before the piece could be auctioned, Yeh Yao Hwang claimed through his Taiwanese law firm that he owned the vessel. Sotheby’s canceled the auction but also refused to return the vessel to Wei. Wei and Wang sued Sotheby’s for breach of contract and for replevin. Sotheby’s interpleaded Wei, Wang, and Yeh.

Yeh’s law firm refused to accept service on his behalf but gave an address in Taiwan where he could be served. Sotheby’s sought to serve him there by registered mail, but the mail was returned as undeliverable. Sotheby’s then sought to serve him by personal service, but no one at the address given would accept service for Yeh. Sotheby’s sought and obtained letters rogatory, but the Taiwanese authorities indicated that they were unable to execute the request because no one at the address would accept the service.

The court, noting that Yeh appeared to be evading service, authorized service on the Taiwanese law firm under FRCP 4(f)(3). The court also required service in Chinese by publication. This is plainly within the court’s discretion, although it’s not really clear what the service by publication was meant to accomplish that service on the law firm would not.

I have to say the situation is curious to me, even though the case itself is simple and correctly decided. Sotheby’s has the vessel, and ownership in the vessel is going to be decided in New York. Yeh claims an interest in it. So why evade service? That’s no way to get the piece back. Probably Yeh has parallel proceedings in mind.

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