By Kelsey Clifford

On September 7, 2021, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed an action brought by the Republic of Turkey (“Plaintiff”) against two defendants, billionaire Michael Steinhardt and Christie’s (“Defendants”), for the recovery of a millennia-old Antalonian Idol known as the “Guennol Stargazer” offered for sale by Christie’s in 2017 (the “Stargazer” or the “Idol”).[1] The Stargazer–– one of only fifteen of these figures known to exist–– was purchased by Steinhardt in 1993 from art dealer J.J. Klejman and consigned to Christie’s twenty-four years later.

In April 2017, the Stargazer was hailed as the highlight of the Classic Week, featured in Christie’s “The Exceptional Sale” and reproduced on the cover of the accompanying catalog.[2] Following the announcement of the impending sale, the Turkish government sent a letter to Christie’s asserting the Stargazer originated in and belonged to the state. On April 27, 2017, one day before the sale, Turkey filed a formal complaint in New York federal court to halt the sale, seeking to reveal the identity of the anonymous consignor and return the figurine to Turkey.[3] The Petition/Complaint alleged that the Stargazer was illegally excavated and smuggled out of Turkey in the early 1960s, violating the 1909 Turkish patrimony law.[4] Before the bidding the next day, Christie’s read a statement explaining Turkey’s claim to the Idol and that the buyer would have a right of cancellation. The Stargazer ultimately sold for $12,700,000, but the buyer never took possession. As a result, the Stargazer remained with Christie’s, pending legal ruling in the title dispute. Robust motion practice followed.

First, on September 30, 2019, the Southern District of New York ruled on the motion to dismiss brought by the Defendants.[5] In Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc.[6] (the “2019 ruling”), the court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss, allowing Turkey’s conversion and replevin claim to proceed to the present case. The court also granted Turkey’s motion for summary judgment on Defendants’ counterclaims of tortious interference with contract and prospective economic advantage. The 2019 ruling established a precedent that “prominently and publicly displaying a work . . . for great lengths of time does not bar claims for recovery.”[7] In 2019, all parties agreed that the evidence showed the Stargazer was in near-constant display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the “Met”) for decades.

In April 2021, the court (with U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan presiding) held an eight-day bench trial to resolve the parties’ remaining claims, including where the right, title, and interest in and to the Stargazer was vested. The success of Turkey’s claim rested on showing the Idol’s presence in Turkey after 1906, following the Ottoman Empire’s enactment of its Decree on Antiquities (the “Decree”). The Decree provided that “[a]ll . . . movable antiquities situated in or on [modern-day Turkey] . . . are the property of the Government of the Ottoman Empire.”[8] Turkey, the Empire’s successor, has used this law to assert ownership claims over numerous high-profile antiquities.[9] Most notably, Turkey recovered the “Lydian Hoard” collection in its 1993 settlement with the Met.[10]

Ultimately, on September 7, 2021, the court held that Turkey did not meet its burden of proof in establishing ownership of the Idol. Alternatively, the court found that the trial record “readily establishes that Turkey slept on its rights,” further precluding its recovery. The Stargazer’s prominent and public display at the Met did in fact work to bar Turkey’s claim. On October 1, 2021, Plaintiffs appealed the judgement to the Second Circuit’s Court of Appeals.

DISCUSSION OF THE LOWER COURT’S DECISION

In the 2021 decision, the Southern District of New York rejected Defendants’ arguments that the 1906 Ottomon Decree was unenforceable. Instead, it held that the law would have made Turkey the rightful owner of the Stargazer if Turkey could prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the Stargazer was discovered in modern-day Turkey after 1906.

The Location of the Idol

The Stargazer was “undoubtedly manufactured” in what is now modern-day Turkey. The Idol belongs to the Kiliya figurine tradition. Kulaksizlar, located in Turkey’s Anatolia region, is the only known manufacturing spot for Kiliya-type Idols.[11] It was also undisputed that the Stargazer was likely created in the middle or late fifth millennium, between 4800 and 4100 B.C.E. Where the Idol went after its manufacture, however, was a mystery.

The first record of the Stargazer reappearing was in 1961 New York, thousands of years later, when art dealer J.J. Klejman sold the Idol to Alastair and Edith Martin. There was no direct evidence regarding the Stargazer’s path before this transaction or how Klejman came to possess the Idol originally. Additionally, answers to these questions were foreclosed by the relevant parties’ deaths.[12]

With so little evidence of the Stargazer between its manufacture and 1961, the court relied heavily on expert witness testimony. The known find-spots of other Kiliya-type Idols supported the conclusion that Idols of its kind were likely traded or exchanged. The parties took very different views on how trade and travel networks in Kulaksizlar showed the Stargazer’s likely trajectory. Dr. Neil Brodie, Turkey’s witness, testified that there was no evidence of Kiliya Idols traded beyond Anatolia during the Chalcolithic period. Turkey argued that the Stargazer’s confirmed Anatolia origins, combined with the evidence of the limited scope of trade networks, supported an inference that the Stargazer was found in Anatolia after 1906. Defendant’s expert witness, Dr. Maxwell Anderson, took a more “expansive view,”[13] testifying that trade and travel during the period could have reached what today constitutes Greece. His assertion was based on Greek tools in Kulaksizlar from the Paleolithic period– around 5,000 years before the Stargazer was created. The court was ultimately persuaded by Dr. Anderson’s testimony that trade and travel during that period could have reached the Aegean.

There was additional evidence of two Kiliya-type Idols existing outside of Anatolia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the Decree was enacted. “Taken together, this evidence establishes that the Idols were transported both during the Chalcolithic period and in the 19th and early 20th centuries.” The court concluded that on this record, the mere fact that the Idol was manufactured in Kulaksizlar was insufficient to warrant an inference that the Idol was found in modern-day Turkey.

Date of Discovery

The Stargazer’s modern provenance can be traced to 1961, when it emerged in New York. Although Turkey did not show the Idol remained in modern-day Turkey from its manufacture, it attempted to prove that it had to have been excavated from Turkey after 1906. Turkey’s argument rested on the date of the 1961 sale. It claimed that there was evidence that stolen or looted antiquities often arrived on the market quickly and that the Idol “would have been well-known had it been discovered before 1961.”[14] Working against Turkey’s argument was that the two known Idols excavated from Turkey before 1906 did not generate significant attention. The court concluded that it was not necessary to “exhaust the universe of possibilities . . . because the mere fact that the Idol surfaced in 1961 [was] plainly insufficient to establish that the Idol must have been found after 1906.”[15]

Turkey again failed to carry its burden of proof. In light of its inability to prove ownership under the Decree, Turkey’s claims for conversion and replevin failed.

DEFENSE OF LACHES

In the alternative, Defendants Christie’s and Steinhardt argued that even if Turkey had established an ownership right to the Stargazer, its delay in bringing its claim, despite being on notice, precluded its recovery under the doctrine of laches. To prevail on their laches defense, Defendants had to show that Turkey was aware of its claim, inexcusably delayed in taking action and that, as a result, Defendants were prejudiced. Under New York law, it is enough that a party should have known of its claim, and both parties’ diligence is considered in the analysis.

Turkey’s Awareness

The court held that Turkey should have known of its claim decades before it first took action in 2017 based on the Idol’s decades-long and near-constant display at the Met and its prevalence in literature beginning in the 1960s.

The Martins, owners of the Stargazer after Klejman, loaned the Idol to the Met for public display in 1967. The Idol stayed there for 25 years with very few interruptions.[16] Notably, documents from the Met identified the Stargazer as being Anatolian. And, after Defendant Steinhardt acquired the Idol in 1993, he loaned it back to the Met in 1999, where it was displayed until 2007. Equally as important to the decades of display was the history of publications discussing the Idol. In 1964, literature was published discussing the Stargazer, identifying it as Anatolian, and indicating that it could be found in the United States. Several years before Defendant Steinhardt bought the Idol, the Stargazer was mentioned in Turkish publications by academics with connections to the Ministry of Culture. Significantly, the Ministry itself published a 1997 essay that identified the Anatolian Idol’s then-current collection.

The court concluded that Turkey, the state that claims ownership over all objects found within its borders, should have at least inquired further about the Stargazer. Turkey’s awareness of the Idol’s existence should have put it on notice of its potential claim. Yet, Turkey took no steps to ascertain whether it was entitled to ownership until Christie’s announcement. In its defense, Turkey argued that it could not be expected to inquire about any object around the world described as being Anatolian. Such an expectation, the court agreed, would be unreasonable. However, here the specific facts of the case did not compel such a broad conclusion: “there is evidence that government officials were made aware of this specific Idol as early as the 1990s, in contexts that described the Idol as being of Anatolian origin.”[17]

Inexcusable Delay, Prejudice, and Diligence

Relevant to the prong of inexcusable delay was that Turkey failed to take any steps to even inquire about the origins of the Idol, how it made its way to New York, and whether it had any potential claim. “Such a failure to inquire or investigate is probative of inexcusable delay.”[18] Further, the Met, a major public institution, did not hide the Idol’s collection. Still, Turkey failed to contact the Met seeking more information, which was “a relatively low bar” and “one that Turkey should have reasonably surpassed.”[19] Therefore, Turkey inexcusably delayed in bringing the action against Defendants.

When assessing prejudice, courts consider “the decreased ability of the defendants to vindicate themselves, on account of the death of witnesses or fading memories and stale evidence, as well as the prejudice that may result from a change in the defendant’s position.”[20] In this case, Defendants’ ability to adequately defend themselves was “unquestionably impacted” by the death of potential witnesses JJ Klejman and the Martins. Defendants could not seek evidence regarding how Klejman came to possess the Idol initially. Because such testimony could have supported Defendants’ claim that Turkey did not hold valid ownership over the Idol, the dearth of that testimony was prejudicial. Additionally, it was possible that if Turkey did not sleep on its rights before 1993, Defendant Steinhardt might not have purchased the Stargazer. Steinhardt purchased the Idol without any claims or expressions of interest by Turkey. The court concluded that this, too, was cognizable prejudice.

Lastly, in rebutting Defendants’ laches defense, Turkey argued that even though Steinhardt was a good-faith purchaser, the court should conclude that his lack of diligence as to the Stargazer’s provenance weighed against a finding of laches. The court pointed out that Steinhardt had no standalone duty to investigate as an ordinary purchaser, even if such a duty would attach to art dealers, museums, or other commercial actors. Further, the evidence showed that Steinhardt met with experts, had high regard for their experience and ethics, and relied on the Met’s good reputation and the known provenance of the Idol. Steinhardt was reasonably diligent in inquiring into the history and the origins of the Idol. Therefore, the defense was not precluded.

In sum, the court found that all elements of the defense supported a finding of laches. It followed that even if Turkey satisfied its burden of establishing ownership, it slept on its rights, which bars recovery under the doctrine.

CONCLUSION

The evidentiary difficulties faced by Turkey in this case are not uncommon for claimants in ownership disputes of stolen or looted antiquities. The decision in this case, if upheld on appeal, has garnered a lot of interest among the legal practitioners to say nothing of museums, collectors, and ministries of culture worldwide looking to recover their national patrimony. Since the decision, both sides have exchanged letters with the court as well as filed Memorandums of law and affidavits to stay or not the Judgment pending appeal. Most recently, on October 22, attorneys for Christie’s and Steinhardt filed an opposition to Turkey’s motion to stay the Judgment. Regardless of whether Turkey’s efforts are successful, “[t]hough the Stargazer now belongs to . . . Steinhardt, the court’s recognition of the 1906 Ottoman decree as vesting ownership of antiquities in the state of modern Turkey is a positive conclusion for future claims on looted antiquities.”[21]

To read the decision, please click here.

  1. For a more in-depth description of the Stargazer, see David Jenkins, Case Review: Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s, CENTER FOR ART LAW (Apr. 30, 2020), https://itsartlaw.org/2020/04/30/case-review-republic-of-turkey-v-christies/. See also, Eileen Kinsella, A Hedge Fund Titan Triumphs Over the Nation of Turkey in the Legal Fight Over a Multimillion-Dollar Ancient ‘Stargazer’ Idol, ARTNET NEWS (Sept. 8, 2021), http://www.culturalheritagepartners.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Stargazer-Case-Press-Coverage-Combined-PDF.pdf.
  2. The leading global auction platform. See The Guennol Stargazer — an Iconic Work of Art from the 3rd Millennium BC, CHRISTIE’S (Apr. 5, 2017), https://www.christies.com/features/The-Guennol-Stargazer-8195-3.aspx. While he lot has been removed from the Christie’s website, photographs of the Stargazer are still appearing on their website.
  3. Disputed Statuette, the Guennol Stargazer, Lost to Turkey, US Court Says, TRTWORLD (Sept. 8, 2021), https://www.trtworld.com/life/disputed-statuette-the-guennol-stargazer-lost-to-turkey-us-court-says-49806.
  4. Who Owns the Guennol Stargazer?, (Sept. 21, 2021), https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/791adbbb05f04d42b8d7c40123ffb8ac.
  5. See Defendants’ Memorandum in support of their Motion to Dimiss, https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/christies-memo.pdf.
  6. 425 F. Supp. 3d 204, 215 (S.D.N.Y. 2019) [hereinafter the “2019 Ruling”].
  7. Supra note 4.
  8. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., Case No. 1:17-cv-03086 (AJN), ECF No. 472 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 7, 2021), https://casetext.com/case/republic-of-turk-v-christies-inc-3.
  9. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s, Inc.— Federal Court Dismisses Turkey’s Claim for Ownership of Allegedly Looted Antiquity, SULLIVAN & CROMWELL LLP (Sept. 14, 2021),

    https://www.sullcrom.com/files/upload/SC-Publication-Federal-Court-Dismisses-Turkey-Claim-Allegedly-Looted-Antiquity.pdf

  10. Id. (describing the Lydian Hoard collection as “a collection of 363 artifacts illegally excavated and smuggled out of Turkey in the 1960s and eventually acquired by the [Met].”).
  11. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., Case No. 1:17-cv-03086 (AJN), ECF No. 472 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 7, 2021) (“Its size and near mint condition make it among the most exceptional examples of Kiliya-type idols known to exist.”).
  12. Id.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. Id.
  16. Id.
  17. Id.
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. Id.
  21. Supra note 4.

About the Author:

Kelsey Clifford is a Fall 2021 Legal Intern at the Center for Art Law. She is currently pursuing a JD degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.