MANHATTAN (CN) — One of only 15 marble idols believed to be in existence, the Guennol Stargazer’s name alludes to its head slightly tilted toward the heavens, a position that it has held when standing since as far back as 3,000 B.C.
A day before an anonymous bidder prepared to pay nearly $14.5 million for the rare and ancient artifact at auction on April 28, the Turkish government filed a federal lawsuit demanding its return and the identity of the buyer.
On Wednesday, Turkey move a step closer toward both goals, as a judge ordered the famed auction house Christie’s to furnish the bidder’s name to Turkey’s lawyers.
“The court is sensitive to the privacy concerns cited by the bidder, and cited by Christie’s – as well as Christie’s own concern with maintaining the confidentiality of its bidders,” U.S. District Judge Allison Nathan wrote in a six-page opinion. “However, although these concerns may be significant, neither Christie’s nor the bidder has presented the court with a compelling argument why no protective order could be fashioned to largely safeguard those interests.”
Nathan ordered that the bidder’s name only be seen by the Turkish government’s attorneys at the firm Herrick Feinstein LLP.
One of its partners, Frank Lord IV, said that he was pleased with the ruling.
“The idol is an irreplaceable part of Turkey’s cultural patrimony, and the republic is seeking to recover it,” he noted.
Though only 9 inches tall, the statue — believed to be a female, Kiliya-type figurine — has been coveted by the art world’s giants.
Turkey’s lawsuit alleges that the statue was illegally excavated and then smuggled out of the country in the early 1960s, before being acquired by Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Martin from the John J. Klejman’s gallery in New York.
According to an editorial for Artsy, an online magazine for collectors, the couple’s surname is “Guennol” in Welsh.
The idol was sold through two more transactions before being acquired by hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt in 1993.
Turkey’s lawsuit notes that the Wall Street titan — named as a claimant-defendant in its complaint — has been involved before in multiple high-profile cases involving looted antiquities, a risk that he boasted about taking to Forbes roughly a decade ago.
“It is a little bit dangerous, but that is what makes it exciting,” he told the magazine, referring to the risk of collecting antiquities. “But life is filled with risks, isn’t it?”
Steinhardt consigned the idol to Christie’s, which promoted it as “The Exceptional Sale.”
Then, one day before the auction, Turkey sued Christie’s and Steinhardt. The bidder pulled out of the sale, and urged the judge to protect his privacy.
The bidder’s attorney Jonathan Pitt, from the Washington-based firm Williams & Connolly LLP, argued that Turkey’s record shows that a U.S. court’s order would provide no guarantee of his client’s protection.
“Indeed, Plaintiff has shown a particular willingness to disregard the jurisdiction of U.S. courts,” Pitt wrote in a nine-page legal brief.
In a footnote, Pitt linked to news stories about the Turkish government opposing the prosecution of 12 of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security guards for assaulting protesters in the U.S. capital.
But Nathan doubted that the bidder’s privacy need was so pressing that even Turkey’s lawyers had to be left in the dark.
“Instead, the bidder appears to take a position that his ‘right to safeguard from family, friends, and outsiders information regarding how [he] spends money’ is of such importance that even Turkey’s ‘lawyers’ have no business knowing this information,” she wrote.
Attorneys for Christie’s and the bidder did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.