December 11, 2020

Restitution: Cybele, the Anatolia goddess of Phrygia, finally goes home

Image Credit: Turkish Consulate General in New York

After a four and a half year stalemate in an international custody battle between a collector and the Turkish government, a marble statue representing the Anatolian goddess Cybele is finally flying home. 

Just before the start of the first intifada collector Eliezer Levin purchased the Cybele sculpture on 3 November 1987 during a public auction held by Matsa Co. Ltd (“Matsa”), run by the Archeological Center in Old Jaffa and its head, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch.  Founded in 1979, the center on Mazal Dagim street was established by Deutsch to conduct auctions of archaeological material and other activities.

The provenance listed in the Matsa/Deutsch auction catalogue for the Cybele states that the artefact is: 

“From the collection of the late general Moshe Dayan, sold to a private collector.”
 
Moshe Dayan was an influential and controversial military leader and politician, whose influence over Israel was considerable.  Between 1951-1981, Dayan bought, exchanged, and sold antiquities, establishing a vast private collection, many of which were acquired through illicit excavations.  Known for his insatiable thirst for material, Dayan was hospitalised for three weeks in 1968 after being badly injured in a landslide while robbing a burial cave at Azur near Tel Aviv. 

Image Credit: The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures,
Volume 4: Article 5, 2003

Disbursed for the most part after the deceased general's death, suspect antiquities acquired by and through Dayan have found their way problematically into both private and public collections, most with little in the way of substantiated legal and ethical provenance. 

By 2016, Eliezer Levin had decided to sell the Cybele, and consigned her indirectly to Christie's.  In relation to its sale and eventual transport for auction in New York, the collector filed for the issuance of an export license which he received on 23 February 2016 from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the governmental authority responsible for enforcing the 1978 Law of Antiquities.  One day later, his designate shipped the sculpture to the auction house in Rockefeller Center. 

By the first of March, the IAA was notified by Interpol that Turkey suspected that the Cybele sculpture had likely been taken out of Turkey illegally.  Once it was determined that the statue had left Israel,  the IAA contacted the United States Department of Homeland Security - HSI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and advised them that the artefact was en route to the United States and that Turkey might be moving forward with a claim.

On April 18, 2016, the Turkish Consulate General in New York sent a letter to the auction house informing them that the Turkish authorities had reason to believe that  Cybele was “of Turkish [Anatolian] origin” and had been “taken out of the country illegally.”   In their request, Turkey rightfully claimed that Cybele is the only known goddess of Phrygia, the first kingdom in the west-central part of Anatolia, the territory at the heart of modern Turkey.  Pending a thorough investigation, the auction firm pulled the Cybele from its upcoming auction.

Eliezer Levin, through is attorney, filed a lawsuit on 21 February 2018 for declaratory judgment on the basis that the collector had acquired the sculpture and had maintained good title to the Cybele under Section 34 of Israeli Sale Law 1968.  His attorney at that time, Sharon Cohen Levin, with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP argued that there was no basis for the forfeiture of the antiquity under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, the United States Act of Congress that became federal law in 1983 which implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  

This in turn lead to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Turkish Consulate General in New York to file counterclaims that the statue should be returned to Turkey.  Christie's in turn agreed to serve as, and is appointed by the court as, substitute custodian for the antiquity, holding it in their custody and control pending resolution of any outstanding legal claim of ownership.

While the story drug on, and legal claims worked their way through the court system, the Turkish authorities gathered expert and witness testimony building their case that the sculpture had similarities to other antiquities discovered during roadwork in the western Afyonkarahisar province in 1964.  This lead the Afyonkarahisar Museum Directorate to consult with residents of the area in which these similar objects were thought to be found who reported illicit digging at around the same time period.  

Turkish law enforcement, in turn, identified an individual with a criminal record for antiquities smuggling who had lived in the area of the illicit digging in the 1960s while one of the villagers questioned gave a sworn statement describing an artefact he/she had seen that matched the description of the Cybele statue.  Later, when shown a series of similar artefact images, this same individual was able to correctly pick the exported statue of Cybele from series of similar photographs. 

Image Credits: Turkish Consulate General in New York

Predicated on the preponderance of the evidence gathered by the Turkish authorities, Eliezer Levin stipulated to voluntary dismissal on 11 December 2020, withdrawing his claim for the Cybele concluding all cases in the US District Court in the Southern District of New York.  Packed up and placed in cargo for her return flight to Turkey,  once she is home, the Cybele is scheduled to be returned to Afyonkarahisar once the new museum in the area has been completed. 

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