Why Turkey Tried—and Failed—to Halt Christie’s Auction of a $14.4 Million Statue
The cover lot of Christie’s “Exceptional Sale” on April 28, 2017 was a figure known as the “Guennol Stargazer,” a marble idol dating from the third millennium B.C. An anonymous buyer picked up the artifact for $14.4 million—well above the $3 million the sculpture was speculated to fetch.
But one day before the auction, the Turkish government filed in U.S. court to have the sale halted, claiming the statute is their property. A skeptical federal judge rejected the country’s request and the sale proceeded. But in responding to the suit, Christie’s offered to hold the work for 60 days following the auction to allow Turkey to provide evidence supporting their claim the piece was looted.
So what makes the “Guennol Stargazer” so valuable and what, if any, legal basis does Turkey have to claim it is theirs?
A Remarkable History
Stargazers are stylized, geometric female idols that appear to be looking at the heavens due to their wedge-shaped heads perched on slender necks. What makes the object sold at Christie’s so “exceptional” is its rarity: There are only 15 such figures known to be in existence.
Though the sale price exceeded expectations, the $14.4 million price tag shouldn’t be a surprise because other objects from the same collection have fetched staggering sums. The artifact is known as the “Guennol Stargazer” because it was once part of the magnificent Guennol Collection, begun in 1947 by Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife Edith. (‘Guennol’ is Welsh for ‘Martin’, with the Welsh word alluding to where the couple spent their honeymoon.)
The Guennol Collection is so extraordinary and impressive that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited it during various times between 1966 and 2007. In December of that year, Sotheby’s sold a Mesopotamian limestone carving—known as the “Guennol Lioness”—from the collection. The piece went for $57.1 million, setting a still-unbroken auction record for an antiquity.
According to the provenance provided by Christie’s, the “Guennol Stargazer” was acquired by the Martins in 1966 or prior, the earliest date for which there is provenance information. It was then passed down through the family by descent. In 1993, the Merrin Gallery acquired the antiquity, before selling it to an unnamed collector that same year. During what is known of the statue’s history, it has been exhibited at the Met and appeared in a number of publications. How and when the work first arrived in the United States is unknown.
The Legal Dispute
On April 19, nine days before the sale, the Consul General of Turkey submitted a letter to Christie’s, stating that the idol originated in Turkey and is “state property” belonging to the nation. Responding to the letter the following day, Christie’s challenged the country’s basis for the assertions and stated that the auction house would not halt the sale. The parties met to resolve the dispute, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
On April 27, Turkey filed a formal complaint in the Southern District of New York, stating that the Stargazer “is an extremely rare artifact that is an integral and invaluable part of the artistic and cultural patrimony of The Republic of Turkey.” Further, they asserted that the work was “illicitly removed” from the country in violation of a Turkish patrimony law passed in 1906. (Since the piece’s provenance can be traced to 1966, Turkey must rely on its own laws, not the 1970 UNESCO Convention which is often looked towards in antiquities ownership disputes.)
At their core, patrimony laws vest nations with ownership of antiquities discovered within their borders. If artifacts are discovered by illicit excavations or not reported to authorities, then the objects become stolen property, and are vulnerable to seizure or repatriation claims. Turkey alleges that the Stargazer was looted in the 1960s, not discovered during a government-approved excavation, and not declared to the proper authorities. Since the country argues it has had patrimony laws since at least 1906, they assert the “Guennol Stargazer” should be returned.
However, Turkey’s claims were met with resistance. Christie’s argued that Turkey did not provide any factual evidence to support its contention that the work was looted and illicitly exported. Further, the auction house asserts that the laws cited by the nation are not relevant in this matter, and that Turkey inexcusably delayed in filing a legal action for the return of the Stargazer. The auction house points to the work’s exhibition and publication history, stating that the nation should have known about the object’s whereabouts because it was on loan at the Met, one of the best-known cultural institutions in the world.
The court did not grant Turkey’s request for a temporary restraining order to halt the sale of the antiquities, finding that any irreparable harm (a legal standard for such requests) to Turkey was “substantially diminished” due to the offer made by Christie’s to delay receipt of funds and not transfer possession to the winning bidder for 60 days.
Judge Alison J. Nathan also raised concerns about Turkey’s delay in demanding return of the object, questioning why Turkey hadn’t brought forth a demand for the return of the object while it was at the Met. Turkey now has less than two months to provide evidence that the work was looted or illegally removed from the nation, in hopes that it can persuade the consignor to voluntarily return the object or substantiate a legal ruling for restitution.
Court of Public Opinion
While on view at Christie’s, the Stargazer was displayed in its own room and lit to highlight its beauty. The sale attracted the attention of collectors and art lovers, but also of a group of protesters who gathered outside of the auction house, carrying banners reading, “shame on you Christie’s” and “Artifacts are the shared treasure of humanity.” Turkish Cultural Minister Nabi Avcı criticized the auction, stating that the artifact was “part of a pillage that has been ongoing for 200 years.” But in a statement, a Christie’s spokesperson said that the sale was in “full compliance with Turkey’s own patrimony laws and with the 1970 UNESCO Convention that governs the legal trade of antiquities.”
With the country’s legal claims at least temporarily stymied, Turkey is turning towards the public. The nation’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism published a full-page letter in the New York Times last weekend. The letter does not mention the Stargazer, but includes the silhouette of the object.
In the letter, the Turkish government called upon private collectors and public institutions to exercise good faith in acquiring cultural objects to help preserve the archaeological record, and encouraged owners to return looted antiquities to their “ancestral homes.” No matter what happens next in the court of the Southern District of New York, the letter shows an understanding that these battles are also won and lost in the court of public opinion.