The Republic of Turkey has brought suit in United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against auction house Christie’s and millionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt for the return of an allegedly looted female figurine dating to the Chalcolithic era.
Turkey is suing for the return of the Female Idol of Kiliya which it says was illegally excavated in the 1960’s The female idol is distinctive of works produced exclusively in the ceramic workshops of Kiliya, Western Anatolia c. 3000-2200 B.C.E. The suit alleges the nine-inch tall statuette, described as the “Female Idol of Kiliya,” was illegally excavated in the early 1960s, unlawfully smuggled out of the country and then soon found its way to the J.J. Klejman Gallery in New York. According to the plaintiff’s brief filed in the case, John J. Klejman was “well known in the industry at that time as a ‘dealer-smuggler’ of stolen antiquities.” The defendants dispute this characterization of the late art dealer.
After two short-term owners in the early 1990s, the Kiliya Idol was acquired by Michael Steinhardt in 1993. Steinhardt has been involved in several high profile legal cases involving allegedly looted antiquities, including U.S. v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment and U.S. v. Antique Platter of Gold, both of which date to the latter 1990s. The latter case involved a 4th Century B.C.E. antique gold platter of Sicilian origin that was alleged to have been stolen, and was found to have been subject to forfeiture.
The Court’s decision in Antique Platter of Gold notes that the art dealer who sold the gold platter to Steinhardt in 1991 previously sold 20 to 30 objects to him, totaling $4 to $6 million in sales. The plaintiffs raised these earlier cases to demonstrate a pattern of practice under which Steinhardt may have purchased the female figurine.
The Republic of Turkey claims it was alerted to the whereabouts of the figurine in early 2017 after Steinhardt engaged the services of Christie’s to sell the Female Idol of Kiliya, and it was included in Christie’s public announcement of an upcoming auction. The Counsel General of the Republic of Turkey and its legal counsel met with Christie’s and demanded that Christie’s return the artifact, but Christie’s and Steinhardt refused their entreaties and proceeded with an auction in April 2017. The Republic of Turkey has referred to the idol as “priceless.”