The marble idol, a smooth figure about nine centimeters high with its head tilted slightly upwards, was on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than two decades.
It was probably made between 4800 and 4100 BC. Created in today’s Turkish province of Manisa. For years, his presence in New York seemed to raise few objections from his country of origin.
But that changed in 2017 when the idol known as Guennol Stargazer was put up for sale by Christie’s. That year the Turkish government sued the auction house and the owner of the work, Michael Steinhardt. Citing the 1906 Ottoman decree claiming wide ownership of antiques found in Turkey, the government said the idol was wrongly removed from its territory and should be returned.
On Tuesday, Manhattan Federal District Court Judge Alison J. Nathan issued a written decision, citing evidence presented during a bank trial in April, and a verdict against Turkey.
“Although the idol was undoubtedly made in present-day Turkey, based on the trial record, the court cannot conclude that it was unearthed in Turkey after 1906,” she wrote, adding that Turkey “slept” even if it did they would have established property on its rights ”and it took too long to file a claim.
In her decision, Judge Nathan said that the Stargazer was remarkable for its “size and near mint condition” and that it was “among the most extraordinary specimens” of its kind.
There seemed little doubt that the stargazer was from Anatolia, but Judge Nathan wrote that “where the idol traveled after it was made is more of a mystery,” added that such items were likely traded or traded.
Turkey argued that there was no evidence that such idols traveled beyond Anatolia and that the stargazer could have been unearthed there. But Judge Nathan wrote that there was “not enough evidence” to support this view.
While it may be impossible to trace the idol’s path over thousands of years, records show that it appeared in New York in 1961 when court tennis star and collector Alastair B. Martin and his wife Edith Martin bought it from the art dealer JJ Klejmann.
(It was later transferred to a company under the control of Alastair Martin’s son Robin Martin; to an art gallery; and then to Mr. Steinhardt.)
How Mr. Klejman came across the idol is also a mystery, wrote Judge Nathan.
“There is no evidence on record to determine where he first met the idol, how the idol came into his possession, or when and how he brought the idol to the United States,” she added.
Turkey tried to support their case that the idol was looted and wrote in their court records that former director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, once referred to Mr. Klejman as one of his “favorite traffickers”.
Judge Nathan countered that “Hoving’s memoirs don’t reveal much about Klejman’s specific trading practices,” and placed more emphasis on the idol’s visibility after his arrival in New York.
It was exhibited in the Met’s permanent galleries from 1968 to 1993, wrote Judge Nathan, with very few interruptions. She added that it has also been widely discussed in various writings since the 1960s and mentioned in Turkish publications by scholars with ties to the Ministry of Culture.
The public display of the work, along with its publication history, gave Turkish officials an opportunity to claim ownership, wrote Judge Nathan. She said that the fact that Turkey made no claim to the idol before it was sold to Mr Steinhardt could have led him to conclude that his property was undisputed.
“Had Turkey pursued its potential claim or inquired about the origin of the idol before 1993,” she wrote. “It is quite possible that Steinhardt would never have bought the idol.”