The marble idol was carved 6,000 years ago, a 9-inch female figure with a slender, abstract shape with the head tilted slightly upward, as if staring into the firmament.
In the 1960s, the idol was transported to the United States, where it was owned by tennis star and art collector Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife Edith and was known as “The Guennol Stargazer”.
Christie’s put the Stargazer up for sale in 2017 and alerted the Turkish government to stop the auction.
The Turkish government then sued Christie’s, saying the idol had been looted. The government asked the court to determine that it is the legal owner of the idol, citing the 1906 Ottoman decree claiming wide ownership of antiques found in Turkey. But the auction continued, and the Idol fetched $ 14.4 million before the unidentified buyer withdrew.
Now the idol is kept in a vault in Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza showroom and offices. And a fight for his future has found its way to the Federal District Court in Manhattan, where a civil lawsuit to determine ownership of the idol began on Monday.
Turkish government lawyers argue that Christie’s and the person who put the idol for sale, Michael Steinhardt, viewed it as questionable and therefore “should have acted in complete and unsatisfactory disregard for Turkish property rights”.
Defense lawyers have countered the government’s failure to prove ownership under this law and have sacrificed their chances of claiming the idol fairly by not talking about it until the auction was scheduled.
On Friday, Victor J. Rocco, an attorney for the Turkish government, asked Steinhardt for his thoughts on antique art dealers.
“I think that there is a certain amount of leeway in dealing with ancient art that creates a lot of discretion,” Steinhardt replied.
The banking trial, heard by Judge Alison Nathan, is the latest chapter in the Turkish government’s ongoing efforts to recover artifacts and antiques from the United States.
In 1993, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return a collection known as Lydian Hoard, which contained more than 200 gold, silver, and bronze objects from the reign of King Croesus of Lydia, a kingdom in Asia Minor that flourished on the 7th and 6th Century BC
And in 2012, the Turkish government asked museums in Los Angeles, New York and Washington to hand over dozens of artifacts that were claimed to have been looted from the country’s archaeological sites.
It is generally accepted that the item at issue in the lawsuit came from Kulaksizlar, home of the only workshop known to have made the stargazers. The figures were so named because of the angle at which a large head rests on a thin neck, Christie’s said in an online description, creating “the quirky impression of the figure staring at the sky.”
When the Guennol Stargazer first went up for auction, Christie’s said it was “one of the most impressive of its kind,” adding that it was on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1966 to 1966 in 2007.
The Turkish government said that one of its witnesses, Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s School of Archeology, would provide “extensive scientific evidence” to support his conclusion that the idol was almost certainly found in Turkey.
The government said it would also show that the idol was excavated and exported from Turkey while the 1906 decree was in force.
To back up the case that the idol was looted, plaintiffs’ attorneys have written that it was acquired by Alastair Bradley Martin from a gallery run by JJ Klejman who is also the source of the Met for part of the Lydian Hoard was. (The former director of the museum, Thomas Hoving, once described Klejman as one of his “favorite smugglers”.)
Christie’s and Steinhardt have claimed that under the 1906 decree, the Turkish government cannot prove ownership of the idol because it “has no direct evidence of where or when the Stargazer idol was found, excavated or exported: it has none Witness for the excavation or export and no photos. “
The defendants have also said that Turkey knew of the idol’s presence in New York as early as 1992, but did not respond to that knowledge.
“Turkey’s 25-year delay in filing its claim has set the trap for dealers, collectors and auction houses,” defense lawyers said in court records. “And prepared them for enormous losses when Turkey only claimed the idol after it was put up for sale in a major auction house.”