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The Guennol Stargazer – Pre-1970 provenance isn’t good enough?

April 27, 2017/Updated May 1, 2017. Christie’s New York has sold a 9-inch-high stone figurine, from the Chalcolithic Period (c.3000-2200 BC), known as the Guennol Stargazer, formerly part of the collection of Edith and Alastair Bradley Martin, for $14.5 million.  The “Stargazer,” so named because its eyes appear to be looking into the heavens, was on loan to NY’s Metropolitan Museum for 27 years, and has been documented in the US for more than 50 years. Just prior to the auction, the government of Turkey filed a claim to the statue, which was rejected by Judge Alison Nathan of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. A group of demonstrators raised placards at Christie’s doors at the May 28 sale.

The Turkish government had not objected or raised a claim to the statuette until just days before the auction, although Turkey has maintained a consulate in New York since 1925, well before the statuette arrived in NY. However, a prominent archaeological blogger, Sam Hardy, has publicized the arguments of Özgen Acar*, a Turkish journalist who claims that the statuette belongs to Turkey, and questioned Christie’s role in its sale.

In his recent blog post, Hardy three times highlighted the auction sale as “remarkable,” because there was “no documentation of its excavation, curation or display in Turkey before it surfaced in the United States in 1966.” There is nothing “remarkable” about that – it is typical of Turkish works that circulated widely in the international market in the mid-20th century.

Sales of enormous quantities of antiquities took place in Turkey in the early 20th century, though they lessened considerably by the sixties – and a nine-inch-high statuette of abstract form would not have been considered of much interest in Turkey at the time.

Its very high value today (some art world observers estimated that it would sell for about $3M, and it reached $14.5M at auction on April 28) is based on its rarity, condition, excellent provenance because of its 50 year history in the US, and perhaps most important of all, its resemblance to the abstracted forms of early 20th century Modern art.

Hardy points out that Christie’s states in its catalog that the statuette is from Anatolia, and if that is so, then Turkey has had a law prohibiting export of antiquities since 1906. This is hardly relevant.

If simply having a law on the books in a foreign country created a presumption of illegality under US law – then our museums would be empty.

The stone figurine is unquestionably lawful to buy or sell under the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, (CCPIA) the primary US legislation that explicitly covers the ownership of ancient and ethnographic art. The CCPIA does not apply: there is no US-Turkey agreement under that law, and even if there was, Turkish objects that could be shown to be outside Turkey for more than 10 years would not be affected.

Any question of illegality would have to be based on a claim that Turkey’s national patrimony laws would make the statuette unlawful to buy, sell, or even possess under the National Stolen Property Act.

This Act would rely on there having been a valid, enforced patrimony law in Turkey at the time the object was exported. However, the US does not enforce Turkish or other foreign laws without question, and for good reason. There are many Turkish laws that are not consistent with the Constitution of the United States.

In the history of cultural heritage law, the US has not enforced foreign patrimony laws (claiming national ownership of all cultural items of a certain age) unless those laws predate the export of the object, the foreign nation actually enforced the patrimony law on its own soil and against its own citizens, the nation made its laws publicly accessible, US citizens had a reasonable ability to access those foreign laws, and knew that their actions violated the law. Those conditions are simply not met in this case.

This controversy-that-is-not-a-controversy is not just about Turkey or about this particular object. It is about finding every act of collecting or exhibiting ancient art somehow wrongful and harmful to society. (See Antiquities Coalition Proposes “Pollution Tax” on Art Trade, Jan. 31, 2017.)

No matter how faulty a source country law against export, even if objects were exported with government permission or sold through a government museum itself (as was often the case in Egypt), there always seems to be an argument to be made against art collecting based on colonialism or oppression of some kind.

Such arguments are unbalanced as well as highly impractical. They often ignore history and the specific facts of the matter. Because they do not acknowledge the merits of granting repose, an important legal principle, to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented artifacts that have circulated for decades in trade, they encourage selective enforcement and prosecutions, both of which should be anathema to members of a civil society.

Arguments based on purely nationalist claims lack any consideration of the social value of the global circulation of art, the understanding and connection it brings, or the humanist (as opposed to nationalist) argument that all humankind shares the responsibility to preserve and to study the works of all of the rest of humankind. They deride humanism as “apologist.”

Hardy appears to be trying to make a case that although major US museums have (entirely voluntarily) held themselves to a pre-1970 standard for acquisitions since 2008, it would be ethically wrong, and perhaps even illegal, for a US museum or private collector (who would likely then donate the statuette to a museum) to purchase a work for which there is no evidence of illegality.

Hardy says that “There is nothing that guarantees and proves to Christie’s customers that the statuette was legally excavated and exported from Turkey.”

That’s true, but our government doesn’t ordinarily ask US citizens to prove that their property is not illegal as a starting point to establish title. Not unless there is good cause to ask for “proof” in the first place.

Not only would this violate due process under the constitution, it would be extremely impractical. Aside from prudently holding onto receipts for five years or so for tax purposes, few Americans keep records of purchases for fifty years. It would also be unfair to impose rules on past acquisitions that did not exist at the time they were made. For example, throughout the 20th century, US Customs did not want to see a permit from a source country even if the importer had one – Customs required only a declaration by the importer of what was paid for an object and where it was from.

In fact, to this writer’s personal knowledge, while many types of Turkish antiquities could not be lawfully exported by the end of the 20th century, other types of objects, for example, massive Byzantine ceramic vessels, could be cleared through Turkish museums and lawfully exported, even in the late 1990s. The volunteer archaeologists who reviewed all shipments were strict and incorruptible, but they did not deem all antiquities worth retaining in the country.

It should be noted that a Manisa Museum assistant, Rafet Dinç, began finding (not excavating) similar types of statuettes in Kilia, Turkey in 1993, and found 119 idol heads in fields where tractors were working the land in Kulaksızlar’s Balıkburnu, 16 kilometers from another locale where figurines had been found by villagers. Altogether, Dinç found 392 pieces of these small statuettes in this location, which was thought to be a sculptor’s workshop.

In his April 27, 2017 article in Hurriet Daily News, Özgen Acar argues for salvage archaeological work to be done in the region where these ancient stone workings were found and also suggests that the Turkish government try to stop Christie’s May 28 sale.

Unfortunately, salvage archaeology is unlikely to disclose new information over 20 years after farm tractors began to disturb the site, and getting funding for it it is even less likely, since the government of Turkey so under-employs and underpays its archaeologists that they were forced to threaten a hunger strike in 2014.

It is far easier to mount a demonstration and generate news reports on supposedly “stolen” objects than it is to care for the thousands of now neglected museums and archaeological sites in Turkey.

* Özgen Acar was honored by the government of Italy, as a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, in February 2008, for his support for Italian archaeological studies in Turkey.

This article was updated May 1, 2017 after the auction sale and the filing of a claim by Turkey to the statue. CCP will continue to follow this story.

Image: Christie’s, New York.

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