A New York court has upheld a ruling that Turkey cannot recover an ancient marble idol from Christie’s that was sold to New York hedge-funder and disgraced antiquities collector Michael Steinhardt.
The sculpture at the center of the dispute, known as the Guennol Stargazer, is believed to have been produced between 4800 and 4100 B.C.E in what is Western Turkey’s modern-day Manisa Province. The antiquity surfaced at a Christie’s New York auction in 2017, where it was sold to Steinhardt. The Turkish government, a 1906 legal standard that gives the country jurisdiction over its exported cultural property, subsequently sued the auction house to recover the piece, arguing it had been looted. The idol, for the duration of the lawsuit, has remained with Christie’s.
On Wednesday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reaffirmed a previous finding that Turkey “had slept on its rights” to recover the work, which had before the Christie’s sale been circulating since the 1990s on the open market.
Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler described Turkey’s “failure” to bring forward its initial claim to recover the item after more than two decades as “unreasonable.” Pooler added that the country “sat on its hands” despite “signals” from its culture ministry of the idol’s location in New York.
Last year Steinhardt was the subject of an investigation and subsequent seizure by New York authorities over his antiquities collection. Steinhardt bought the idol for $14.5 million at Christie’s in 2017.
In 2017, when the current suit was first litigated, a New York judge found that Steinhardt was not obligated to look further into the idol’s provenance after purchasing it. Representatives for the embattled collector, now banned from acquiring antiquities as a result of the probe, have emphasized the finding as key in his defense, arguing that it points to larger issues with the trade.
Yael Weitz, an attorney representing the Turkish government in the suit, said Wednesday’s decision will not “deter” the country from pursuing other legal action to recover objects abroad that it believes to have been looted. “It’s very difficult for countries of origin to recover these looted items,” said Weitz.
According to court documents, Pooler found that in the previous ruling, the lower district misapplied the “burden-shift” a legal standard requiring Turkey to prove the idol was taken from the country illegally. “We were gratified that the court agreed that the lower court did make a mistake,” said Weitz, calling it a “helpful precedent.” She added that Turkey is considering its “next steps.”