Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Sculpture made of weapons sparks legal battle at Philly port

Goncalo Mabunda sculpture "War Throne" was seized by ATF agents in Philadelphia, and art collector Adam Solow plans to sue the federal government to get the Mozambican artwork back.

Goncalo Mabunda's "War Throne."
Goncalo Mabunda's "War Throne."Read moreCourtesy Adam Solow

A legal battle is brewing over a sculpture created by an African artist and seized by federal agents in Philadelphia this spring.

"War Throne" is a chair made entirely of decommissioned weaponry.

Adam Solow, who purchased the artwork through an Italian broker, says the firearms no longer pose a danger.

But federal authorities apparently disagree: Customs agents flagged "War Throne" when it arrived in Philadelphia in April.

It's now in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which is refusing to return it unless Solow applies for a firearms importation permit or uses a broker, he said.

Even then, the ATF would require that many of the chair's parts be dismantled or destroyed.

"This is a piece of art, a cultural object," Solow said Thursday. "Unless I was MacGyver, I don't know how I'd be able to reconstitute all those pieces and make it into a working weapon."

Acclaimed Mozambican sculptor Goncalo Mabunda created "War Throne" from the detritus of a 15-year civil conflict that left his country studded with hidden caches of military equipment.

"What drew me to this is that the artist is basically taking something disgusting and deadly and making it into a piece of art," said Solow, an immigration lawyer and contemporary African art collector.

Mabunda's works, which often feature inert grenades, land mines, and machine gun belts, have been transported to the U.S. in the past. One sculpture is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum; more were featured in a group show at New York City's Ethan Cohen Fine Arts earlier this year.

"These nearly identical pieces by the same artist are here and are free," Solow said. "They didn't have to be destroyed or reconstituted to be allowed to be imported into the U.S. We think the ATF, in their definition of what a firearm is, is really digging here."

The ATF's Philadelphia Division did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. An agent told Newsworks, which first reported the story, that an item is considered a threat as long as portions of it can be recrafted and used as a weapon.

Solow and partner Alex Isbell, of Center City's Solow, Isbell, and Palladino, plan to file a lawsuit challenging the ATF's characterization of "War Throne" as a firearm and asking the government to return it intact.

If that's not possible, Solow would like to donate the piece to a museum.

"I'm just trying to do anything to save this piece from destruction," he said. "It's too important, too beautiful a piece to destroy."