A New York court ruled yesterday, March 8, that Turkey has no right to a 6,000-year-old marble sculpture the nation says was looted because it waited too long to ask for it back. In 2017, billionaire Michael Steinhardt consigned the “Guennol Stargazer” idol to Christie’s, where it sold for $12.7 million.
“Turkey sat on its hands despite signals from its own Ministry of Culture that the Stargazer was in New York City,” reads the decision from New York’s United States Court of Appeals for the Second District. “Turkey’s failure to bring its claim (or even investigate it) until 2017 was unreasonable.” The verdict follows a previous case decided against Turkey in 2021.
The marble Stargazer figurine was created around 3000 to 2200 BCE in Kulaksizlar, Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey. In 1961, art dealer J.J. Klejman sold the idol to a pair of art collectors, Alastair and Edith Martin, in New York City. Where, when, or how Kejman found the object is unknown.
The Martins loaned the object to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1968 through 1993, when they sold it to Merrin Gallery. Michael Steinhardt purchased the Stargazer from the gallery that same year. The idol again found its way into The Met from 1999 through 2007.
Ten years later, Steinhardt sold the piece through Christie’s, although the buyer never actually took possession of it. A few weeks later, Turkey took legal action in pursuit of the idol’s repatriation.
Christie’s declined to comment. Steinhardt’s lawyer, Andrew J. Levander, told Hyperallergic the court’s recent decision affirmed that his client “was an ordinary purchaser of antiquities without the same duty to investigate provenance as art dealers or museums.”
Steinhardt, however, is not quite an “ordinary purchaser of antiquities.” The hedge fund billionaire’s collection was estimated at over $200 million and has been subject to several seizures by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Former District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. accused Steinhardt in 2021 of having a “rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts” and a “decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures.”
In the 2021 trial Turkey vs. Christie’s, Inc., Turkey presented evidence “to prove Steinhardt’s devil-may-care attitude regarding lawful provenance and foreign patrimony laws” and claimed that the billionaire would have purchased the object whether or not it was stolen. The court dismissed the external evidence as irrelevant and found that Steinhardt’s alleged failure to contact Turkey, the gallery, or the first New York City purchasers, the Martins, did not leave the court with a “firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”
The court cited evidence that the Turkish cultural ministry was aware of the Stargazer’s New York City location and as a result “should have been aware of its potential claim in the 1990s.” The verdict hinges on the laches doctrine, which strips defendants of their rights to make legal claims if they delayed asserting those rights.
“And after contrasting Steinhardt’s investigation into the Stargazer’s provenance with Turkey’s failure to act for over twenty-five years, we do not find that the district court abused its discretion in balancing the parties’ respective diligence,” the court stated.
Turkey’s lawyer Lawrence Kaye told Hyperallergic he is disappointed with the decision and believes it was wrong. “We believe that the decision on laches is erroneous,” Kaye said. The lawyer stated that the verdict has a “negative impact on all countries of origin to recover their previously undiscovered antiquities that are stolen.”
“We’re considering our options for next steps,” continued Kaye, adding that he will “aggressively pursue cultural objects that were stolen.”