Turkey’s claim to marble figure quashed by New York Federal Judge ruling

A New York Federal Judge has decided that a marble figure which is owned by hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt and which has spent decades on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will not be returned to Turkey. The Turkish government sued for the return of the figure in 2017 however, according to Judge Alison J. Nathan, there is “insufficient evidence” to support Turkey’s claim that it should be returned.

The marble figure, which stands at 22.9 cm high, is known colloquially as the ‘stargazer’ idol. This title derives from the position of the figure, with the tilted back angle of the head and the gaze upwards to the heavens. It is probably from the Chalcolithic period and likely dates to between 4800 and 4100 BC. According to Christie’s, who offered the figure for sale in 2017, it is a Kiliya type of idol, of which there are only around 15 nearly complete idols that survive. G. Max Bernheimer, International Head of Antiquities at Christie’s, described the object as “an iconic work of art and one universally recognized as the finest Kiliya idol in existence”.

Michael Steinhardt, the owner of the idol, purchased it in 1993 for $1.5 million from a gallery, who had acquired it from the family of tennis star Alastair Martin, who in turn had purchased it in 1961 from the New York based art dealer J.J. Klejman. It was on display at the MET from 1968 to 1993, and again from 1999 to 2007, and numerous academic publications have been devoted to the object. However, it was not until 2017 when the item was put up for auction at Christie’s that Turkey intervened, suing the auction house and the object’s owner. The Turkish government cited the 1906 Ottoman decree. This decree asserts that all antiquities found in public or private lands are state property and cannot be taken out the country.

Judge Nathan countered this claim, stating that, “although the Idol was undoubtedly manufactured in what is now modern-day Turkey, the Court cannot conclude based on the trial record that it was excavated from Turkey after 1906.” She suggested that the idol could have been traded or exchanged prior to this date. She further stated that Turkey had “slept on its rights”, as the idol had been known to the public and on display for a considerable amount of time prior to their 2017 claim.

Turkey has countered this argument by stating that the MET’s former director, Thomas Hoving, once referred to J.J. Klejman, the dealer who sold the idol in 1961, as one of his favourite “dealer-smugglers”, thus suggesting that he was engaged in the illicit dealing of looted goods. Judge Nathan has dismissed this, stating that, “Hoving’s memoir does not reveal much about Klejman’s specific trading practices”.

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