NEW YORK — Turkey cannot recover a 6,000-year-old marble idol from Christie’s and hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt after waiting an unreasonably long time to claim it had been looted, a US appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said Turkey “had reason to know” by the 1990s that the Guennol Stargazer might have been wrongfully removed from its territory.
It said Turkey therefore “slept on its rights” by waiting to sue Christie and Mr. Steinhardt, the idol’s owner, until April 2017, when the auction house listed the Stargazer for sale.
“Turkey sat on its hands despite signals from its own Ministry of Culture that the Stargazer was in New York City,” Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote for a three-judge panel. “Turkey’s failure to bring its claim (or even investigate it) until 2017 was unreasonable.”
Lawrence Kaye, a lawyer for Turkey, said the country is considering its next steps, after establishing at trial that it owned the idol and was “diligent” in asserting its rights.
“This decision will not deter the Republic of Turkey from continuing to aggressively seek the return of cultural objects that have been stolen from it,” he said.
A lawyer for Christie’s and Mr. Steinhardt declined to comment. The Stargazer is about nine inches (22.9 cm) tall, and named because its head tilts slightly upward toward the sky.
In claiming ownership, Turkey cited the 1906 Ottoman Decree, which asserts broad rights to antiquities.
But the country said it would be impossible to investigate everything in its “vast trove of unknown ancient artifacts,” and it was “neither aware, nor should it have been aware” of its claim to the Stargazer until Christie’s described the idol’s limited provenance in its auction catalog.
Pooler, however, said the Stargazer had long been on public display, including more than three decades at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that throughout the 1990s the culture ministry published essays and presentations about it.
“The Stargazer has not lived in secrecy,” Pooler wrote.
Mr. Steinhardt and his wife paid $1.5 million for the Stargazer in 1993. Christie’s auctioned it for $14.5 million, but the buyer walked away. Wednesday’s decision upheld a Sept. 2021 ruling by US District Judge Alison Nathan, which followed an eight-day trial. Judge Nathan was later elevated to the appeals court.– Reuters