2021-09-07 by W.M.
Judge Rejects Turkey’s Claim That Ancient Sculpture Was Looted.
The marble idol, a smooth figure about nine inches high with its head tilted slightly upward, was exhibited for more than two decades in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was probably created between 4800 and 4100 B.C.E in what is now Turkey’s Manisa Province. For years, its presence in New York appeared to draw little objection from its country of origin.
But that changed in 2017 when the idol, known as the Guennol Stargazer, was listed for sale by Christie’s. That year the Turkish government sued the auction house and the work’s owner, Michael Steinhardt. Citing the 1906 Ottoman Decree, which asserts broad ownership of antiquities found in Turkey, the government said the idol had been wrongfully removed from its territory and should be returned.
On Tuesday, Judge Alison J. Nathan of Federal District Court in Manhattan issued a written decision, citing evidence presented during a bench trial in April and ruling against Turkey.
“Although the Idol was undoubtedly manufactured in what is now modern-day Turkey, the Court cannot conclude based on the trial record that it was excavated from Turkey after 1906,” she wrote, adding that even if Turkey had established ownership it had “slept on its rights” and taken too long to make a claim.
In her decision Judge Nathan said the stargazer was notable for its “size and near-mint condition” and that it was “among the most exceptional examples” of its sort in existence.
There seemed to be scant question that the stargazer had originated in Anatolia, but Judge Nathan wrote that “where the Idol traveled to after its manufacture is more of a mystery,” adding that such items were probably traded or exchanged.
Turkey argued that there was no evidence that such idols had traveled beyond Anatolia and that the stargazer could be inferred to have been excavated there. But Judge Nathan wrote that there was “insufficient evidence” to support that view.
Although it may be impossible to trace the idol’s path over thousands of years, records show that it surfaced in New York in 1961 when the court-tennis star and collector Alastair B. Martin and his wife, Edith Martin, bought it from the art dealer J.J. Klejman.
(It was later transferred to a corporation under the control of Alastair Martin’s son, Robin Martin; to an art gallery; and then to Mr. Steinhardt.
How Mr. Klejman came across the idol is also a mystery, Judge Nathan wrote.
“There is no evidence in the record to establish where he first encountered the Idol, how the Idol came to be in his possession, or when and how he brought the Idol to the United States,” she added.
Turkey, seeking to bolster its case that the idol had been looted, wrote in its court papers that the Met’s former director, Thomas Hoving, once referred to Mr. Klejman as being among his “favorite dealer-smugglers.”
Judge Nathan countered that “Hoving’s memoir does not reveal much about Klejman’s specific trading practices” and placed more emphasis on the idol’s visibility after arriving in New York.
It was exhibited in the Met’s permanent galleries from 1968 through 1993, Judge Nathan wrote, with very few interruptions. She added that it had also been widely discussed in various writings starting in the 1960s and was mentioned in Turkish publications by academics with connections to the Ministry of Culture.
The public display of the work, along with its publication history, gave Turkish officials the opportunity to make a claim of ownership, Judge Nathan wrote. She suggested that the fact that Turkey did not make a claim on the idol before it was sold to Mr. Steinhardt could have led him to conclude that its ownership was uncontested.
“Had Turkey pursued its potential claim or inquired as to the provenance of the Idol prior to 1993,” she wrote. “It is quite possible that Steinhardt would have never purchased the Idol.”