Your Browser Does Not Support JavaScript. Please Update Your Browser and reload page. Have a nice day! Case Review: Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s - New

Case Review: Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s

By David Jenkins.

In recent years, the Republic of Turkey has displayed a dedication to preserving and repatriating its cultural artifacts and antiquities to be kept by the state.[1] In what the nation itself calls a “cultural war,” Turkey has engaged with countries like the United States, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and more to recover antiquities that have been stolen, looted, or otherwise entered into private ownership and the global art market.[2] Between 2004 and 2019, Turkey recovered an estimated 4,437 artifacts from possessors abroad, including from high profile institutions like the British Museum and The Met.[3] The process involved in recovering artifacts by source nations such as Turkey, who have long dealt with the looting of their cultural heritage, is often long and harrowing. Countries can spend years of negotiations and legal battles with involved parties, commonly complicated by both the long spans of time these artworks have spent elsewhere, and the difficulty of proving the works are from the claimant country at all.

The legal hurdles present in the midst of attempts to reclaim long lost artworks have come to a head in a very public way in the pending case Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc. et al, where Plaintiff is represented by the Art Law group of Herrick, Feinstein LLP, and co-defendants, Christie’s auction house and collector Michael Steinhardt, are represented Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC. The case was filed in the Southern District of New York on April 27, 2017 over Turkey’s claim of ownership to a prominent sculpture known as the “Guennol Stargazer” (the “Stargazer”).[4] In an opinion rendered by Hon. Alison J. Nathan on September 30, 2019, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment to dismiss the claim was denied, and Turkey’s motion for summary judgment against the defendants’ counterclaims was granted, allowing the case to proceed further. Counterclaims alleged tortious interference with contract and prospective economic interference for actions taken before and after the sale of the Stargazer.

While the 2019 opinion only allows the case to proceed rather than vests ownership of the Stargazer in Turkey, the decision establishes precedent that prominently and publicly displaying a work of art for great lengths of time does not bar claims for recovery.

Background and Facts

The “Guennol Stargazer” is a Kiliya type Anatolian marble sculpture, a small votive artwork of a typically humanoid and abstract nature. This particular sculpture, standing roughly nine inches tall and given the “Stargazer” moniker for the tilted-back angle of its large head, is one of only 15 known complete sculptures of its kind.[5] The last Kiliya type statue to be sold at Christie’s went for $1,808,000 in 2005, and Christie’s itself called the Guennol Stargazer “one of the most impressive of its type known to exist.”[6] The Stargazer’s earliest documented provenance is its acquisition by American collectors Alastair and Edith Martin, who purchased it for $12,500 in or around 1961 from the J.J. Klejman Gallery in New York.[7] Subsequently, Stargazer changed hands many times and was displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for several decades, before being acquired by Steinhardt from the Merrin Gallery in New York on August 16, 1993.[8]

Screenshot from Christie’s New York “The Exceptional Sale,” April 2017. Source: Christie’s.

On March 4, 2017, Christie’s announced the inclusion of the Stargazer in its “Exceptional Sale” taking place on April 28, 2017 and featured the piece as an “iconic work of art from the 3rd millennium BC.”[9] Having learned of the planned sale on April 19, 2017, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture alerted Christie’s of its claim to ownership of Stargazer and sought to stop the sale.[10] Turkey’s claim rested on two grounds:

  1. The only known workshop to have produced Kiliya type sculptures was in located in what is now modern-day Turkey; and
  2. An Ottoman decree from 1906 established state ownership of all antiquities both already found and yet to be discovered in the future.[11]

Turkey filed its claim in federal court the day before the sale, and the next day, April 28, 2017, the sculpture sold to a bidder for $12,700,000. On the day of the sale, the New York Times published an ad featuring an open letter from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism thanking museums, institutions, and collectors who have cooperated in the return of antiquities without ever mentioning the sale at Christie’s.[12] A demonstration, which Turkey denied being involved in, was held the same day outside Christie’s protesting the sale.[13]

On September 30, 2019, two years following the sale, this opinion was issued reviewing the following:[14]

  1. Christie’s and Steinhardt’s motion for summary judgment against Turkey’s claim of ownership.
  2. Turkey’s motion for summary judgment against Christie’s and Steinhardt’s counterclaims of tortious interference with contract and prospective economic advantage.
  3. Turkey’s Daubert motion to dismiss the expert testimony brought forward by Christie’s and Steinhardt.
  4. Parties’ requests for sealing orders.[15]


Does the Open Dealing and Display of an Artwork Begin to Run the Statute of Limitations on a Claim for Conversion and Replevin?

New York law requires that “an action to recover chattel or damages for the taking or detaining of chattel” be commenced within three years[16] of a “demand and refusal” for recovery if the claim is against one who has come by the chattel lawfully.[17] However, Christie’s and Steinhardt claimed their open dealing of Stargazer and its prominent public display had removed the need for demand and refusal, a preclusion typically reserved for “bad-faith possessors,”[18] or those who know they do not properly own the art while dealing with it, which both parties conceded Steinhardt was not.[19] The court ruled that, lacking bad faith possession, the statute of limitations only began to run when Turkey sent their letter to Christie’s and Steinhardt and they refused to return Stargazer, which was within three years of the suit being filed.[20]

Can a Decree by a Precursor State be Considered an Enforceable Ownership Law Concerning a Modern State in U.S. courts?

The court held that yes, a decree of ownership by a precursor state is enforceable in the context of the modern state. The 1906 decree expressed that it was an ownership law applying to modern Turkey by its plain language, which reads as follows.[21]

[a]ll monuments and immovable and movable antiquities situated in or on land and real estate belonging to the Government and to individuals and various communities, the existence of which is known or will hereafter become known, are the property of the Government of the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, the right to discover, preserve, collect and donate to museums the aforementioned belongs to the Government.[22]

As the parties agreed that “local law controls the analytically prior issue of… whether any person or entity has a property interest in the item,”[23] whether or not the Ottoman decree applied as an ownership law was left to the interpretation of the court.[24]

The language of the decree was plainly meant to confer ownership to the state of any antiquities found in what is now Turkey.[25] Christie’s and Steinhardt argued that the intent of the decree was not in alignment with the plain language,[26] but Turkey presented sufficient evidence to the contrary by demonstrating there had been previous enforcement of the decree as an ownership law.[27] While Turkey had not demonstrated enforcement in all possible instances, the court found even occasional high-profile enforcements were sufficient to counter claims of intent running contrary to the plain text.[28]

The court made little issue of whether a law from a previous government could be applied to a modern successor, briefly referencing the statement of Plaintiff’s law expert, Dr. Sibel Özel. Özel, faculty of international private law at Marmara University in Turkey,[29] testified that “the Turkish Republic is a successor to the Ottoman State, any Ottoman law is also enforced or applied in the Turkish Republic period” unless it is in conflict with new law.[30] While Christie’s argued the Ottoman law was not enforceable under the rule that ownership laws must be translated “into terms understandable by Americans” to be enforced in U.S. court,[31] the court held this only meant that the law must unequivocally claim ownership of all artifacts, and the decree in question here did so by its plain terms.[32]

Does the Lack of Specific Provenance Information Preclude an Issue of Material Fact as to the Art’s Origin?

The court held that incomplete provenance does not preclude an issue of origin, and that Turkey had no burden to demonstrate such things as a specific findspot or excavation and export date, only to present enough evidence that a reasonable juror could determine the sculpture came from Turkey while the Ottoman decree was in effect.[33] Christie’s and Steinhardt argued that Turkey needed to prove the taking of Stargazer fell under the decree and had failed to do so. However, the burden under summary judgment only required specific evidence to demonstrate dispute of material fact.[34]

The court accepted as sufficient undisputed evidence that Stargazer was of a kind only ever produced in what is now modern-day Turkey, and that Turkish antiquities frequently appear on the market where they were quickly acquired by museums and collectors. The court also recognized evidence that J.J. Klejman Gallery, from which the Martins purchased the sculpture, was a known “dealer-smuggler.” [35]

Was There Tortious Interference with Contract?

The court granted summary judgment to Turkey against the claim for interference with the contract for sale of the statue on two grounds. First, there can be no tortious interference with contract for any actions taken before the sale was done, as no contract was formed until that moment.[36] Second, the only claims for interference with contract beyond this point were against Turkey’s attempts to reveal the identity of the bidder who won the sale and their requests for discovery from third parties who objected.[37] Judgment was granted on this first claim because the court had already approved Turkey’s efforts to learn the bidder’s identity,[38] and on the second because such requests were a normal part of the discovery process.[39]

Was There Tortious Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage?

The court found that any actions besides an independent crime or tort could not have been actionable interference, as Turkey’s interest in recovering Stargazer precluded inflicting harm on the plaintiffs from being their sole purpose, and that the litigation itself was not meritless.[40]

Turkey’s Daubert Motion to Exclude Witnesses’ Testimony

The court reserved rulling on Turkey’s Daubert motion. The Plaintiff asked the court to exclude the presentation of allegedly invalid expert testimony of Professor Ozan Varol and Dr. Maxwell L. Anderson from trial, claiming neither expert was qualified “by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education.”[41][42][43] Turkey argued that Varol, a Turkish native and current faculty at Lewis & Clark Law School, was unqualified to give expert testimony on the grounds that, while he is a law professor, he has neither expertise in Turkish patrimony law nor any prior experience teaching or writing on the subject.[44] Turkey also claimed Varol has bias that adds to the invalidity of his testimony.[45] Varol has been a vocal critic of the Turkish government, being branded a public enemy of the state for comments and publications decrying the Erdogan regime.[46] Anderson’s testimony was objected to on similar grounds that he did not have the expertise to speak over the areas relevant to the suit.[47] While Anderson is a former Museum director who had conducted extensive work with the acquisition of antiquities at The Met,[48] Turkey argued Anderson did not have sufficient experience in Turkish law or Turkey’s protections of Archeological sites.[49]

The court reserved rulling on Turkey’s Daubert motion on the grounds that this case was heading to a bench trial, as is the judge’s usual practice in bench trials (as explained by the Defendants’ attorney Thomas R. Kline): barring expert testimony from a bench trial would have been tantamount to “asking the [court] to gate-keep testimony from [itself]”.[50][51]

Request for Sealing Orders

The court denied the parties’ requests for sealing orders without prejudice on the grounds there were no sufficient factors to outweigh the First Amendment right of access to summary judgment documents.[52] The parties are allowed to submit more specific requests in the future.[53]


The problems, both legal and cultural, of illicit taking and trading of antiquities are, and have been, difficult ones in numerous nations. Both successful attempts to retrieve such artworks, such as Italy regaining 40 artifacts including a famous sculpture of Aphrodite from the Getty in Los Angeles,[54] and less successful efforts, such as the famous case of the Elgin Marbles,[55] taken from Greece by a British Earl and which still remain in Britain, have been lengthy affairs that can come down to the minute details establishing when and where the artifacts are acquired and what laws may apply under those conditions. Such details can, as in this case, often be difficult to prove with great specificity due to the unfortunate truth that provenance for antiquities is virtually always incomplete. While countries like Cyprus have lost claims to certain artifacts when losses were not properly documented or the timeline did not lend itself to application under international agreements like the 1970 UNESCO Convention,[56][57] which seeks to combat the illicit trade of cultural heritage objects between 140 countries, this opinion may provide some powerful precedent for countries faced with similar burdens.

The court’s deference to the Turkish law experts on the Ottoman law applying to Turkey opens a window for other nations to use older ownership laws, born of precursor states, to lay claim to art in the modern day, even if such laws have not been widely enforced or translated for modern use. Such a window could aid nations who could not establish provenance dating back to agreements created under UNESCO. The decision also helps establish more manageable standards for ownership claims in the face of incomplete provenance, allowing claims for ownership to continue based on reasonable evidence of the artwork’s origin rather than evidence of a specific findspot or exportation date.

The scope of this decision may be limited, however, by the fact the court only applies this looser standard to summary judgment. No comment was made as to whether such evidence would plausibly prevail in proving the art’s place and time of origin at trial, and in fact the court only distinguishes this case from Gov’t of Peru v. Johnson, a case invoked by the defendants which ruled against the nation seeking replevin,[58] on the grounds that the court in Peru issued their opinion after the trial, and so could weigh the credibility of the plaintiff’s evidence.[59]

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for auction houses like Christie’s, collectors like Steinhardt, and museums like The Met is the precedent that an artwork’s extensive presence in the public space does not bar potential claims from source nations like Turkey’s after large lengths of time. The Guennol Stargazer is a well-known artwork that has been on display in such major institutions as The Met for decades, but the court determined that even this level of notoriety, which many would argue could not have escaped Turkey’s notice, does not impede a claim of ownership at present. The defense of laches, where rightful owners have failed to seek enforcement of their rights, that has been long relied upon by good faith owners seems to be severely curtailed, at least in the context of recovery of cultural artifacts and national treasures. Christie’s itself had expressed a fear of such a precedent before this decision was rendered, claiming it “would set a disastrous precedent for collectors, museums and the art market.”[60]

Turkey’s victory in this opinion does not come in a vacuum, as other similar cases have been ending more commonly in settlements involving the artwork’s return. As noted by Thomas R. Kline, one of the counsels to Steinhardt in this case, in his discussion over a similar case involving antiquities in Cyprus:

These past twenty years of growth and development in Cyprus’s cultural property policy do not come in a vacuum. Other source countries are becoming more active. The most significant development of recent years is the number of truly remarkable objects demanded by source countries from major museums and the number of settlements. These settlements, I believe, do not just provide for returns of objects, but also build a foundation for future cooperation between the source country and the museum in question.[61]

If there is indeed a trend towards greater activity by source countries and towards settlement in such cases, this opinion may carry great weight even under a summary judgment standard. If museums, collectors, and auctions houses can be confronted with evidence that precedent suggests will be sufficient to advance litigation to trial, they may be more willing to come to settlements involving return or restitution rather than engage in years and even decades more of legal action and the cost associated with it.

The decision also potentially gives free license to actions by alleged original owners in an attempt to stop the sale, so long as they are not criminal or tortious in nature, under the simple justification that anything done is in pursuit of reclaiming the art, not just hurting the party in possession of it.

How impactful reasonings and precedents set by the Southern District of New York will be in other jurisdictions or beyond the scope of summary judgment remains to be seen, but this case certainly provides other nations seeking reclamation of art with some potentially powerful ways to lessen the burdens imposed upon them in the fight against the long history of looting and smuggling of antiquities into the mainstream art market.

This case was scheduled to proceed to a bench trial on April 27, 2020; however, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the trial has been postponed to November 2, 2020.

Erratum: this article has been edited to correct the court’s ruling on Turkey’s Daubert motion.


  1. Merve Stolzman, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture Efforts to Patrol the Art Market and Recover Looted/Illicitly Exported Antiquities, Center for Art Law, (Mar. 26, 2018),
  2. Constanze Letsch, Kate Connoly, Turkey Wages “Cultural War” in Pursuit of its Archaeological Treasures, The Guardian, (Jan. 21, 2013),
  3. Artworks Returned from Abroad Between 2004-2019 (by Years), General Directorate of Cultural Assets and Museums, (last visited Apr. 23, 2020),–2019-yillari-arasinda-yurtdisindan-iadesi-saglana-.html
  4. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN) (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  5. The Guennol Stargazer – an Iconic Work of Art from the 3rd Millennium BC, Christie’s Auctions & Private Sales, (Apr. 5, 2017),
  6. The Guennol Stargazer – an Iconic Work of Art from the 3rd Millennium BC, Christie’s Auctions & Private Sales, (Apr. 5, 2017),
  7. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 2 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  8. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 2 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  9. The Guennol Stargazer – an Iconic Work of Art from the 3rd Millennium BC, Christie’s Auctions & Private Sales, (Apr. 5, 2017),
  10. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 3 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  11. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 2 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  12. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 3-4 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  13. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 3-4 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  14. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 4 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  15. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 4 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  16. N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 214.
  17. Menzel v. List, 49 Misc. 2d 300, 304-05 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 1966).
  18. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 8 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  19. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 7 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  20. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 9 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  21. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 15 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  22. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 12 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  23. United States v. Portrait of Wally, 105 F. Supp. 2d 288, 292 (S.D.N.Y. 2000).
  24. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 11 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  25. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 12 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  26. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 14 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  27. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 13 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  28. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 13 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  29. Pl.’s Pretrial Mem. of L., 25, Apr. 24, 2020.
  30. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 14 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  31. United States v. McClain, 593 F.2d 658, 670 (5th Cir. 1979).
  32. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 14-15 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  33. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 15-16 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  34. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 17 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  35. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 16 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  36. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 18 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  37. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 19 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  38. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 19 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  39. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 20 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  40. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 21 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  41. Mem. of L. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. to Exclude Expert Test., 1, Dec. 7, 2018.
  42. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).
  43. Fed. R. Evid. 702.
  44. Mem. of L. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. to Exclude Expert Test., 11-13, Dec. 7, 2018.
  45. Mem. of L. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. to Exclude Expert Test., 14-15, Dec. 7, 2018.
  46. Ozan Varol, This Book Made Me a Public Enemy, Ozan Varol, (Visited Apr. 28, 2020).
  47. Mem. of L. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. to Exclude Expert Test., 16, Dec. 7, 2018.
  48. Eric Pace, Met Reinstalls XXIV Noble Romans, The New York Times, (Dec. 30, 1983).
  49. Mem. of L. in Supp. of Pl.’s Mot. to Exclude Expert Test., 17-20, Dec. 7, 2018.
  50. Joseph S. v. Hogan, 2011 WL 2848330, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. July 15, 2011).
  51. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 22 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  52. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 23-24 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 22 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  53. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 24 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 22 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  54. Elisabetta Povoledo, Getty Agrees to Return 40 Antiquities to Italy, The New York Times, (Aug. 2, 2007),
  55. Ian Johnston, First-Ever Legal Bid for Return of Elgin Marbles to Greece Thrown Out by European Court of Human Rights, Independent, (July 19, 2016),
  56. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970
  57. Celebrate 50 Years of Fight Against Illicit Trafficking, UNESCO, (Feb. 13, 2020),
  58. Gov’t of Peru v. Johnson, 720 F. Supp. 810, 812-814 (C.D. Cal. 1989).
  59. Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., 16-17 Civ. 3086 (AJN), 22 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 30, 2019).
  60. Eileen Kinsella, Christie’s and Hedge-Fund Titan Move to Quash Turkey’s Lawsuit Over ‘Stargazer’ Idol, artnet news, (Aug. 30, 2017),
  61. Thomas R. Kline, “Confronting complexity in the preservation of cultural property: monuments, art, antiquities, archives, and history–what can Cyprus teach us?” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, vol. 106, Annual 2012, p. 462+. Gale OneFile: LegalTrac,

Additional readings:

About the Author: David Jenkins is a student at the University of Texas School of Law. He graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English Literature and a minor in government. David is currently the President-Elect of Law Students for the Arts at Texas Law and a regular volunteer at local art institutions in Austin, Texas.