Turkey's government filed its claim to the 9-inch relic known as the Guennol Stargazer earlier this year, saying the statue was illegally excavated and then smuggled out of the country.
Though Turkey purports not to have heard about the piece for decades before Christie's advertised it for an April 28 auction, Christie’s says this point is undermined by the writings of Rafet Dinc, who curated the state-owned Manisa Museum between 1986 to 1993.
Writing in 1997 for Turkey’s Ministry of Culture about an academic symposium, Dinc called it “known” that “an idol of ‘Kiliya Type’” is in the “Guennol collection in New York,” according to an Aug. 28 brief by Christie's.
Guennol is Welsh for the surname of New York collectors Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Martin, who bought the Stargazer in 1961.
“Dinc also cited a 1992 article by German archaeologist Jurgen Seeher in which Seeher not only identifies the figure as ‘Guennol Collection, New York’ but also includes two photographs of the Guennol Stargazer,” Christie’s brief states. “Likewise, in the previous year’s article covering the ministry’s 1995 symposium, and in a self-published abbreviated version of the same research, Dinc cited the same 1992 Seeher article.”
Christie’s says another Turkish archaeologist who wrote about the statue was Turan Takaoglu, a professor at Canakkale Onsekiz Mart Universitesi in the Dardanelles.
Describing two excavations conducted under Dinc’s supervision for a 2001 publication by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture, Christie’s says Takaoglu “cited both of Dinc’s earlier Ministry articles and thanked Dinc and the Directorate of Museums for their support.”
“Takaoglu also cited, once again, the 1992 Seeher article that identified the Guennol Stargazer by name,” the brief continues.
Christie’s says the repatriation lawsuit must fail if there is evidence that Turkey knew about the statue’s location for longer than three years before it sued.
’“These newly discovered materials, not previously mentioned by Turkey but found on the ministry’s website by defendants … contradict representations by Turkey that it lacked knowledge of the figure’s whereabouts,” the brief states.
With its head tilted slightly toward the heavens since as far back as 3,000 B.C., the Guennol Stargazer was showcased in an even more public collection from 1999 to 2007: on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt.
For a few months in 2003, the statute even did a stint in the Met’s heralded collection "Art of the First Cities in the Third Millennium B.C.”
Christie’s notes that this is not the first time the Turkish government has quarreled over an antiquity displayed at the Met.
Between 1987 and 1993, Turkey fought for the return of the Lydian Hoard, the name given to the 363 valuable artifacts originating from the Usak Province in western Turkey in seventh century B.C.
The Karun Treasure is another name for the artifacts, on display at the Usak Museum of Archaeology since the resolution of that litigation.
Christie’s calls it implausible that the Guennol Stargazer slipped Turkey’s notice during its legal wrangling with the Met.
“Turkey admits that it has been heavily involved with the Met since it began litigation over the Lydian Hoard, but has not been able to explain why it could not find the Guennol Stargazer during the fifty years it was exhibited at the Met when a simple walk through the galleries would have revealed it,” the brief states. “Nor does it appear that Turkey did anything to follow up on the Met’s objections to Turkey’s attempted discovery of other objects.”
If the Turkish government prevails again, Christie’s warns, major museums and art institutions would be at risk.
“Turkey’s view that it cannot act on all of its lost objects, therefore is justified in sitting on knowable and even known claims and then pursue them at its pleasure and convenience, is inconsistent with the law of New York and would set a disastrous precedent for collectors, museums and the art market,” the brief states.
Turkey’s attorney Frank Lord IV, from the New York-based firm Herrick, Feinstein, did not immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment.
Christie’s is represented by Thomas Kline with Cultural Heritage Partners.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.