Steinhardt, pretrial discovery, and 1000 antiquities

Image result for Guennol Stargazer
The Guennol Stargazer, an anatolian marble female idol of Kiliya type. Chalcolithic period, c. 3000-2200 BC. 9 in (22.9 cm) high.

Michael Steinhardt has been involved in over 1,000 antiquities transactions, and he is not eager to discuss the details of any of them. That’s my key takeaway from a recent Magistrate Judge’s order which may throw a good deal of daylight on many of those 1,000 transactions through pre-trial discovery. The suit involves the Republic of Turkey, represented by Herrick, Feinstein LLP, in the ongoing lawsuit between the Republic of Turkey, Christies, and Steinhardt involving the Guennol Stargazer. That could have big implications for future potential repatriation suits involving material which passed through Steinhardt and dealers he was associated with. If he has been involved in 1,000 antiquities transactions, we could be looking at a large amount of new information coming to light. It may also lead to more actions by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s office like the one earlier this year.

First, a few observations about Mr. Steinhardt. He is a billionaire. He was one of the first hedge fund managers. He has generously funded many cultural exchanges, including the Jewish Birthright movement which pays for Jews to return to Israel. He also has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and serves on Christie’s advisory board. He has also been subject to many repatriation and forfeiture lawsuits, two notable ones including an ancient Greek gold Phiale from Sicily, and an Etruscan tomb fragment. 

His dispute with Turkey involves a small sculpture which dates to the third millennium BCE, and was sold for a reported $14.5 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York on April 28, 2017. Soon after the Republic of Turkey brought suit against the auction house and the consignor, Michael Steinhardt.

At the time the ministry of Culture of Turkey published a full-page letter in the New York Times demanding repatriation of objects which have been illegally removed from that country.

Image result for turkey full page new york times letter
An Open Letter from the Turkish Ministry of Culture which ran in the New York Times in 2017, featuring the Guennol Stargazer.

Turkey brought suit in advance of the contemplated sale on April 27, 2017. Turkey sought to block any potential sale, and was denied that request. However District Judge Nathan did agree to an accession by Christie’s which would delay for 60 days the receipt of any funds by the winning bidder, and to retain possession of the object. Soon after Turkey amended its complaint on May 26, 2017 re-asserting claims that the Figure had been removed from Turkey at some point prior to 1966 in violation of Turkey’s National Patrimony Law. In the complaint, the lead attorney Lawrence Kaye argued that Turkey has had since as far back as 1906 national ownership of all undiscovered antiquities in Turkey. The only known published provenance for the Figure from Christies was the following:

Alastair Bradley and Edith Martin, New York, acquired 1966 or prior; thence by descent. with the Merrin Gallery, New York, acquired from the above, 1993. Acquired by the current owner from the above, 16 August 1993.

That current owner was Michael Steinhardt. Which brings us to the recent ruling by Magistrate Judge Aaron. The parties at this point, Christie’s and Steinhardt on one side; and Turkey on the other, are presently engaged in the pretrial discovery process. This involves Turkey asking for as much information as possible about how Steinhardt acquired his antiquities. What was his diligence before every acquisition? What if any concerns were raised? Steinhardt is justifiably reticent to hand over all of that information. As Magistrate Judge Aaron summarizes in his decision, Turkey “argues that Steinhardt’s ‘habits and practices’ with respect to antiquities transactions even after his 1993 acquisition of the Idol are relevant.” But the ultimate discovery was limited to “Steinhardt’s antiquities transactions up to and including December 31, 2006”, which was limited in two important ways. First, any transactions by Steinhardt in Anatolian antiquities; and also any antiquities transactions by Steinhardt which involved John J. Klejman. Klejman was according to Thomas Hoving, one of his favorite “dealer-smugglers“. Klejman had also handled the series of objects known as the Lydian Hoard, which was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966, and which was returned to Turkey in 1993.

The pre-trial discovery process in America can be a long carefully argued process with each party arguing about how much or little information should be conveyed to the other parties in a lawsuit. Though Mr. Steinhardt has demonstrated a willingness to aggressively litigate to defend his possession or in this case sale proceeds of antiquities, he has not always been successful. At the very least this recent ruling highlights just how much information may be discoverable, how many transactions he was engaged in, and raises an important point moving forward. If this material is not transmitted back to nations of origin, or if a nation of origin cannot be ascertained, what Museum would want this collection of objects with incomplete histories? Wouldn’t we have a much more interesting story to tell about the Guennol Stargazer if we know which tomb it came from? David Gill has speculated that the Guennol Stargazer may have been found with a similar Stargazer which has been acquired by Shelby White.

Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc., No. 1:17-cv-03086 (AJN) (SDA), 2018 BL 170526 (S.D.N.Y. May 14, 2018), available at https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14654938921966793717&hl=en&lr=lang_en&as_sdt=6,44&as_vis=1&oi=scholaralrt
  1. Suzan Mazur, Klejman or Hecht?–Who Sold the Guennol Stargazer to Tennis’s Alastair Martin?, Huffington Post (Sept. 19, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/klejman-or-hecht-who-sold-the-guennol-stargazer-to_us_59c03f89e4b082fd4205b935.
  2. Smuggled Anatolian idol sold in US, Hürriyet Daily News, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/smuggled-anatolian-idol-sold-in-us–112576.
  3. Sam Hardy, The antiquity of the Guennol Stargazer – legal, looted, fake?, conflict antiquities (Mar. 0, 2018), https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/turkey-guennol-stargazer-legal-looted-fake/.

 

Chechi on human rights and restitution

Roman ruins with a prophet, by Giovanni Pannini, 1751.
Roman ruins with a prophet, by Giovanni Pannini, 1751.

Alessandro Chechi, a post-doctoral researcher at the Art-Law Centre in Geneva has published a thoughtful discussion on human rights and restitution. From the abstract:

The legal and political discourse over cultural heritage is today dominated by a number of sophisticated conceptions. First, the term cultural heritage is used to focus attention on the manifestations that do not assume tangible form but that represent evidence of the way of life and thought of a particular society. Such a shift of interest witnesses the perception of culture as a human centred, socially constructed legacy belonging to all mankind. Secondly, cultural heritage can be seen as part of the physical public space that we normally call the ‘environment’ or the ‘landscape’. This approach takes into account the interactive link of such heritage with the life of people inhabiting it. Thirdly, cultural heritage may also be seen as a powerful tool to build a sense of nation. It is a fact that, since the 19th century, nations have used representative cultural treasures as means for supporting or legitimising claims to self-determination and independence or for creating a cohesive national identity. Fourthly, cultural heritage today can be seen as the object of individual as well as collective rights. In this sense, cultural heritage becomes an important dimension of human rights.
Chechi, Alessandro. Safeguarding the human rights dimension of cultural heritage through restitution [online]. Human Rights Defender, Vol. 24, No. 2, Jul 2015: 11-12. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=376874607084084;res=IELHSS>ISSN: 1039-2637.

Germany sued over Nazi-era Medieval art sale

The 13th-century Dome Reliquary, part of the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin
The 13th-century Dome Reliquary, part of the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin

“Any transaction in 1935, where the sellers on the one side were Jews and the buyer on the other side was the Nazi state itself is by definition a void transaction”.

So argues Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney representing descendants of the Jewish art dealers who sold a collection of medieval artworks known as the “Guelph” or “Welfenschatz” Treasure, allegedly under duress and threat of persecution. The complaint for the two heirs was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. to recover yesterday afternoon. The objects were part of the treasury of the Braunschweig cathedral and were used to store and display relics. The claimants allege that a group of Jewish art dealers were forced to sell the objects in 1935 to the German state of Prussia.

One unfortuante aspect here is that the German commission charged with resolving the claims of Nazi-era claimants was unable to achieve a satisfactory result for the claimants and the German government. One of the likely issues in this dispute will be one the timelinesss of this suit, whether a court will examine the circumstances surrounding an alleged forced sale nearly 80 years after it took place. The complaint alleges that the objects were sold under persecution for 4.15 million Reichsmarks (RM). If we do some rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, the exchange rate was 2.45 RM for $1. So that means the objects were sold for just shy of $1.7 million in 1935 dollars, which be nearly $28 million today. Considering the treasure may be worth as much as $226m, the German State seems to have received a pretty good bargain. The legal question will be whether that sale was under duress.

O’Donnell argues in his blog this morning:

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