A Turkish Idol Will Not Be Repatriated, New York Judge Rules

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A Turkish Idol Will Not Be Repatriated, New York Judge Rules

In 2017, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism published an open letter in response to the sale of the Guennol Stargazer. (image via the Turkish Consulate General in New York’s Facebook page, posted on May 1, 2017)

The Guennol Stargazer will not be repatriated to Turkey, a New York federal judge ruled, bringing Turkey’s efforts to lay claim to the Anatolian marble statuette — which it alleged had been illegally removed from the country — to a close. While the idol is clearly of Turkish origin, US District Judge Alison Nathan said that Turkey provided inadequate evidence to support its foundational claim that the idol was excavated from Turkey after 1906, the year that a decree was put in place declaring all antiquities found on Turkish land to be national property.

In addition to not meeting its burden of proof, Nathan said, Turkey “inexcusably slept on its rights” to the precious figurine by waiting until 2017, when it was a star lot at Christie’s New York “Classic Week,” to seek its return, as the statuette had previously been on view at the Metropolitan Museum for decades.

The elegant nine-inch-tall female figure has an etched pelvis and an upturned head, giving it the Stargazer moniker. In pre-sale promotional materials, Christie’s said that the Kiliya-type idol was one of about 15 complete or nearly complete surviving examples, as most of the remaining idols of this type are fragmented. Court records date the statuette’s creation to sometime between 4800 and 4100 BCE in Kulaksizlar, located in present-day Manisa Province, Turkey. Since idols like this one were often used in networks of exchange — a fact underscored by the defendants, the implication being that the object may have traveled beyond Turkey’s borders well before 1906 — it likely didn’t stay at its site of origin in Kulaksizlar for long.

The object’s documented provenance begins in 1961, when Alastair and Edith Martin, the prominent New York art collectors who built the Guennol Collection, purchased the idol from art dealer J.J. Klejman; it remains unclear how Klejman, who sold the Lydian Hoard (looted art later restituted to Turkey) to the Met from 1966 to 1968 and died in 1995, originally obtained the statuette. The figurine was then transferred to a corporation owned by Alastair’s son, Robin Martin, and subsequently sold to Merrin Gallery. Billionaire hedge fund founder and collector Michael Steinhardt purchased it from Merrin in 1993, and two decades later consigned it to Christie’s. There, in April 2017, it fetched $14.4 million including premium — before the buyer pulled out due to concerns about Turkey’s announcement of a lawsuit.

Both Steinhardt and the Martins loaned the Stargazer to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was on public display from 1968 to 1993 and 1999 to 2007. While on view at the “major public institution,” Nathan noted, the idol generated attention and literature references, including “in Turkish publications by academics with connections to the Ministry of Culture.” However, Turkey did not inquire into the idol’s provenance at any point in that lengthy period.

Nathan also rejected arguments that Steinhardt — who has previously purchased items that proved to be looted from Greece and Italy — acquired the statuette in bad faith, as Steinhardt had put his trust in the reputation of the Met and the Guennol Collection, and asked standard questions about provenance prior to purchasing the artifact.

“[Steinhardt] purchased the Idol in 1993 without any claims or expressions of interest by Turkey that could put him on notice as to the potential contested nature of the Idol’s ownership,” said Nathan. “Had Turkey inquired as to the provenance of the Idol, or argued that it held a potential claim as to the Idol, Steinhardt may not have purchased the Idol in the first place.”

As a result of the ruling, all right, title, and interest to the idol remains vested in Steinhardt.

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