The marble idol was carved as many as 6,000 years ago, a 9-inch-tall female figure with a sleek, abstract form, its head tilted slightly upward as if staring into the firmament.
By the 1960s the idol had been transported to the United States, where it was in the possession of the court tennis star and art collector Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife, Edith, and known as “The Guennol Stargazer.”
Christie’s listed the stargazer for sale in 2017, drawing the attention of the Turkish government, which asked for the auction to be halted.
The Turkish government then sued Christie’s, saying the idol had been looted. The government asked the court to find that it is the rightful owner of the idol and cited the 1906 Ottoman Decree, which asserts broad ownership of antiquities found in Turkey. But the auction proceeded and the idol fetched a price of $14.4 million, before the unidentified buyer backed away.
Now the idol is being held in a vault in Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza salesroom and offices. And a battle over its future has made its way to Federal District Court in Manhattan, where a civil trial to determine ownership of the idol began on Monday.
Lawyers for Turkey’s government are making the argument that Christie’s and the person who put the idol up for sale, Michael Steinhardt, should have seen it as having questionable provenance and therefore “acted in total and unconscionable disregard of Turkey’s ownership law.”
Defense lawyers have countered that the government is unable to prove ownership under that law and sacrificed its chances to fairly claim the idol by not speaking up about it until the auction was planned.
On Friday, Victor J. Rocco, a lawyer representing the Turkish government, asked Steinhardt for his thoughts on dealers in ancient art.
“I think that there is a degree of latitude in dealing with ancient art that creates a good deal of discretion,” Steinhardt replied.
The bench trial, being heard by Judge Alison Nathan, is the most recent chapter in an ongoing effort by the Turkish government to recover artifacts and antiquities from the United States.
In 1993, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return a collection known as the Lydian Hoard, which included more than 200 gold, silver and bronze objects from the reign of King Croesus of Lydia, a kingdom in western Asia Minor that flourished in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.
And in 2012, the government of Turkey asked museums in Los Angeles, New York and Washington to turn over dozens of artifacts it said were looted from the country’s archaeological sites.
It is generally accepted that the item at issue in the lawsuit originated in Kulaksizlar, the home of the only workshop known to have produced the stargazers. The figures were so-called because of the angle at which a large head rests on a thin neck, Christie’s said in an online description, creating “the whimsical impression of the figure staring up at the heavens.”
When the Guennol Stargazer was first listed for auction, Christie’s said it was “considered to be one of the most impressive of its type known to exist,” adding that it had been on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at various periods from 1966 to 2007.
The Turkish government said that one of its witnesses, Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, would provide “comprehensive scientific evidence” for 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 effect.
To bolster its case that the idol was looted, plaintiffs’ lawyers have written that it was acquired by Alastair Bradley Martin from a gallery run by J.J. Klejman, who was also the Met’s source for part of the Lydian Hoard. (The museum’s former director, Thomas Hoving, once referred to Klejman as among his “favorite dealer-smugglers.”)
Christie’s and Steinhardt have maintained that the Turkish government cannot prove ownership of the idol under the 1906 decree because it has “no direct evidence of where or when the Stargazer Idol was found, excavated or exported: it has no witnesses to the excavation or export and no photographs.”
The defendants also have said that Turkey knew about the presence of the idol in New York as early as 1992 but did not act on that knowledge.
“Turkey’s 25-year delay in making its claim baited the trap for dealers, collectors and auction houses,” defense lawyers said in court papers. “And set them up for huge losses when Turkey claimed the Idol only after it came up for sale at a major auction house.”