Disputed statuette, the Guennol Stargazer, lost to Turkey, US court says

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A judge in New York ruled the country had acted too late to stake a claim on a statuette that was put on auction by Christie’s in 2017, despite it being smuggled out of Anatolia decades earlier.

The “Guennol Stargazer”, a controversial figurine from Anatolia, will not be returning to its homeland, a US judge ruled on September 7, 2021. The 6,000-year-old marble idol, Turkey contends, was illegally removed from the country and should be repatriated.

The Guennol Stargazer, so-called because the figurine has a slight tilt of its head towards the heavens, was “probably created between 4800 and 4100 BCE in what is now Turkey’s Manisa Province,” the New York Times notes.

“The Guennol Stargazer was a part of the Guennol collection, which was formed by prominent art collectors Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife, Edith,” Christie’s writes in an introduction to the icon.

“‘Guennol’ is the Welsh word for ‘Martin’, and the choice of Welsh is an allusion to the place where the couple spent their honeymoon. The Stargazer was acquired by the current owner, a New York private collector, from the Merrin Gallery in August 1993,” Christie’s explains.

The private collector mentioned on Christie’s site is Michael Steinhardt, hedge fund billionaire, who would put the item back on sale after 24 years. Steinhardt and his wife paid $1.5 million for the idol in 1993. “The idol fetched $14.5 million at Christie’s auction, but the unidentified telephone buyer walked away. Christie’s still possesses the idol,” according to Reuters.

According to the Antiquities Coalition, while the anonymous bidder backed away from buying the idol for fear that their identity be revealed, “the Stargazer was nonetheless purchased for $12.7 million.”

US District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan said Turkey “inexcusably slept” on its rights by suing too late –– not until April 2017, just before Christie’s put the idol up for auction. She said the country should have known about the idol’s whereabouts decades earlier.

“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.

If Turkey had provided enough evidence to prove the 22.9 cm figurine was excavated from Anatolia after 1906, it would have made Turkey the rightful owner under that year’s Ottoman Decree, according to the judge.

“The 1906 decree declared for the first time that all antiquities found in or on public or private lands were state property and could not be taken out of country,” Sibel Ozel from Marmara University’s Law Faculty writes in the International Journal of Legal Information, Volume 38 Issue 2 Summer 2010 . “Since the decree did not apply retrospectively, antiquities already in private hands in accordance with the pre-1906 decree remained private property.” 

Nathan also dismissed Turkey’s claim that Steinhardt, who placed the item on sale at Christie’s, ignored “red flags” about the idol’s provenance.

Stargazer, statuette of a woman, about 3,000 BC, photographed at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Stargazer, statuette of a woman, about 3,000 BC, photographed at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
(Daderot / Wikimedia Commons)

Christie’s places the Guennol Stargazer in the Chalcolithic period, between 3000 and 2200 BC, and says it is “considered to be one of the most impressive of its type known to exist.” Christie’s also refers to its exhibition history, “having been on loan at The Metropolitan Museum of Art at various periods from 1966 to 2007.”

Ironically, it was the fact that it was on display at the Metropolitan Museum that both distinguished the idol and worked against Turkey’s claims: “The Met is a major public institution [and] did not hide that the idol was part of the Guennol Collection,” Nathan wrote.

“Turkey failed to contact the Met seeking more information about the origins of the idol- a relatively low bar, all things considered, and one that Turkey should reasonably have surpassed,” she added.

The Daily Sabah reports that the Metropolitan Museum “had returned a set of artifacts known as the Lydian Hoard, to Turkey [in 1993], after admitting that they knew the items were smuggled from Turkey when they purchased them.”

The case was allowed to proceed to a bench trial after the defendants’ motion to dismiss Turkey’s claim was rejected, and the country’s motion for summary judgement against the auction house’s counterclaims was granted, according to the Antiquities Coalition: “This landmark ruling [on September 30, 2019] established a legal precedent that prominently and publicly displaying a work of art for great lengths of time does not bar claims for recovery.”

Yet while the trial was allowed to proceed, the evidence that Turkey put forward was not enough for the country to win the case against the defendants Christie’s and Steinhardt, the judge, who ruled after a non-jury trial of eight days in April, in September. (The case had been postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the New York Times notes.)

The Guennol Stargazer is “among a family of marble statuettes that were prevalent in ancient ages in Anatolia,” Daily Sabah reports. Similar ‘stargazers’ are already on display in Turkish museums, the first of which was “discovered in the Kiliya settlement on the Gelibolu Peninsula in western Turkey,” the newspaper writes.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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