(Bloomberg) -- When the signature item at Christie’s New York antiquities auction was sold in April, the art collector Michael Steinhardt thought he’d pocketed $12.7 million. His 5,000 year-old stone idol, called the Guennol Stargazer, went for more than twice its pre-sale estimate.
But now a lawsuit brought by the government of Turkey against Steinhardt and Christie’s has derailed the sale. It alleges Steinhardt should have known the ancient idol was looted from the country. And Turkey’s lawyers have argued that Christie’s failed to conduct proper due diligence and rushed forward with the auction in spite of objections.
The auction house also resisted disclosing the dispute to prospective buyers until the court ordered it to do so. The idol now remains locked away in Christie’s vault while questions over its ownership are resolved.
The dispute has cast an awkward spotlight on a closely held company better known for its discretion as well as on a hedge-fund pioneer -- and a member of Christie’s advisory board -- who has repeatedly been caught up in disputes about the provenance of antiquities linked to him.
A money manager who has poured his wealth into philanthropy, art and a venture called WisdomTree, Steinhardt said Turkey should have raised its claim years earlier, since the idol has been displayed publicly for decades. He said the provenance questions he has faced are typical for major antiquities collectors, calling the episodes “a little bit of bad luck.”
Steinhardt wanted to sell Stargazer, along with several other pieces, because art became too big a portion of his net worth. Now, he’s hoping Turkey’s claims are dismissed, adding, “You bet I am not planning to return it.”
Steinhardt owned the figurine anonymously for more than two decades. His identity as the idol’s seller was only recently revealed in the legal fracas with Turkey.
Christie’s, the largest auction house in the world by sales, said in a statement: “While Christie’s has significant respect for the cultural property rights of countries of origin, this particular work is very well documented outside of Turkey, and has been extensively exhibited in the public realm over the last 50 years.” Steinhardt’s participation on Christie’s advisory board was not a factor in the handling of the sale, the auction house said.
Lawyers representing Turkey argue that its national patrimony law, dating to 1906, governs the matter. That law says that all antiquities discovered within Turkish territory belong to the state. The clash comes at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has challenged the U.S. on issues ranging from Syria strategy to the U.S. harboring an exiled Turkish cleric. His government has raised the dispute over the Stargazer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to records from Turkey’s lawsuit.
Ultimately, the fight may turn on two questions: Whether Turkey can conclusively show the piece was discovered in that country, and whether it laid claim to the artifact in a timely fashion.
Increasingly, courts and public opinion have supported claims by foreign governments to return stolen treasures, in challenges to museums, auction houses and collectors. In recent months, Italy regained two ancient pieces: a vase from New York’s Met that was looted by tomb raiders in 1971, and a marble statue of Zeus from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, after museum officials agreed that it matched a fragment found near Naples.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, said the pendulum has swung too far in favor of foreign governments. “The enthusiasm for disputing things -- which is borne from very just cases -- has gone beyond the boundaries of common sense.
“If objects have been in the public domain, they acquire good title over time,” said Vikan, the author of 2016’s “Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director.” He is not involved in the Stargazer litigation.
The Stargazer is a 9-inch (23 centimeters), strikingly modern figurine whose upturned head inspired its name. Similar idols were produced during the Bronze Age in the southern coastal region of Anatolia, an area now contained within Turkey. Turkey said the Stargazer was illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country in the early 1960s.
The Stargazer surfaced in the public realm in 1966, when it was exhibited at the Met. Over subsequent decades, it was exhibited multiple times, even after Steinhardt purchased the idol in 1993, according to court documents. He said he bought it through a gallery for less than $2 million.
After he decided to sell it, the Stargazer graced the cover of the Christie’s auction catalog, and it was promoted in the window of the auction house’s New York headquarters near Rockefeller Center.
Turkey learned that Christie’s had the idol in late March and lodged a protest a week before the April 28 auction, according to court records. When the two sides were unable to reach an agreement, Turkey sued to block the auction. U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan denied that request, but -- over Christie’s objections -- ordered the auction house to announce before the sale that Turkey had raised an ownership claim. She allowed the auction to proceed after Christie’s agreed to an extra month delay in the hopes the dispute would be resolved before the deal was consummated.
Nathan said she found it interesting that Christie’s would go forward with the auction under the circumstances. The judge ordered Christie’s to reveal the identity of the prospective buyer, who has since walked away from the deal. (The Stargazer’s final price of $14.5 million included Christie’s commission).
“The bidder was on notice that Turkey had laid claim to the idol, prior to bidding, and nevertheless entered the highest bid,” the judge wrote. As such, he or she might have information “about Christie’s vigilance in determining the provenance of the idol.” The buyer has tried to remain anonymous, claiming through a lawyer that he or she knew nothing of substance.
A voracious collector, Steinhardt, 76, and his wife, Judy, have spent at least $200 million assembling a trove of antiquities, modern art and textiles. The couple also owns a private zoo of exotic animals at their estate in Bedford, New York.
The Stargazer feud marks at least the fourth time provenance questions have cropped up over a piece tied to Steinhardt.
Last month, the Met turned over an ancient Lebanese bull’s head to New York prosecutors after one of its curators raised concerns about its provenance. Several years ago, it was briefly owned by Steinhardt until he learned of Lebanon’s claim to it and demanded the sellers buy it back.
In 2011, U.S. authorities in Newark, New Jersey, seized a fragment of a painted stone tomb as it arrived from Switzerland. Documents on the artifact claimed it was from Macedonia, but it was later traced to an archaeological site in Italy. Its export wasn’t approved either. Steinhardt was listed as the recipient but never received it. He said he didn’t recall details of the incident.
And in the 1990s, Steinhardt fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his ownership of an antique gold platter seized from his apartment at Italy’s request. Prosecutors said the evidence showed he was “eager to know as little as possible about the source” of the piece, despite having paid more than $1 million to buy it.
Steinhardt never got the gold platter back.
In making Turkey’s case that Steinhardt should have known the Stargazer was stolen, its lawyers noted his connection to several cases involving allegedly looted antiquities and his stated love of the risks inherent in the business. Steinhardt doesn’t deny it.
“It’s my nature,” he said. “As an investor, I welcomed the qualities of risk in all sorts of investments, and I didn’t necessarily shy away from risk.”