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libralady 15 Mar 2009

Turkey´s Lost Treasures

Many of Turkey´s treasures have with been stolen or smuggled into foreign countries over many years....

Turkey is a country steeped in history with many historical, cultural and archaeological sites.  These sites have influences from several different origins that have come to Turkey in waves over centuries, some of whom settled with the locals. The Anatolian hinterland will show you glimpses of other ancient civilizations: the Hattis, the Hurris, Assyrians, the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Urartians, the Lydians and the Lycians. From these civilizations come many familiar legends: women warriors known as Amazons, the wealth of the Lydian King Croesus, King Midas with the golden touch, and the Knot of Gordian that young Alexander was able to undo with the strike of his sword. Other influences come from the Romans with their aqueducts, Sinan and their bridges, and Ottoman architecture dotted around the countryside and still in use to this day.


Many historical edifices are proudly displayed at the main archaeological sites and to name a few of the more well known sites; Troy, Pergamon, Ephesus, Priene, Didyma, Aphrodisias, Heraclia, Olympus, Patara, Xantos, Halicarnassus, Perge, and Aspendos.  Many more coastal villages and towns are blessed with their very own Anatolian ruins on the outskirts.


The richness of the countryside and the number of historical and archaeological sites creates rather a challenge for Turkey in protecting its heritage.  A great deal of work has been done to safeguard these sites and strict regulations prevent the export of antiquities………………. Or does it????


During the 1800s and 1900s, a number of historical artefacts were smuggled out of Anatolia to foreign countries and are now exhibited in leading museums or have been auctioned.  Many of these were major historical works which have been located and are now based in leading museums in a number of countries, including US, UK, Russia, France, Italy, and Denmark.


Gila Benmayor wrote in 2005, assuming that everyone knew that Turkey is full of historic and cultural treasures, how disconcerted he was that so many treasures have been smuggled or stolen over the years and are now situated in other countries, citing Pergamon Museum and the Pushkin Museum as two examples.


Turkey’s Cultural and Tourism Ministry’s General Directorate on Cultural Assets and Museums is working in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry to track down artefacts that have been or are being seized through customs checks, those exhibited in museums or offered for sale in auctions.  Ertuğrul Günay, the Cultural and Tourism minister was said to have been tracking down the historical artefacts smuggled from Anatolia to foreign countries.  He has been following auctions and asked for support from the Foreign Ministry and other relevant institutions in his quest.  Measures are being taken to request their return, but this is the tip of the iceberg and not as easy as it seems.  Günay was particularly upset to see several smuggled artefacts being displayed in the British Museum.


Turkey has been attempting to secure the return of the Troy Treasures from Russia for 17 years.  These are located in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.  Russia have so far refused to return two silver crosses and gold bracelets from the Byzantine era, that were seized in Russia two years ago and have demanded that these items should be handed to their current “owners”.


Another example is the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. There are several artefacts from Pergamon; The Boğazköy Sphinx is one such piece, taken to Germany in 1970 to be cleaned and it was never returned.  The Zeus Altar (picture below) dating from around 180-160 BC is probably the most well known artefact to have found its way to another country. 

It was smuggled in the 19th Century; no mean feat in itself considering the size and weight of the object, along with artefacts from Priene and Miletus. This altar takes up a whole room.  This giant structure, constructed in Pergamon as an altar to Zeus, is the centre piece of the museum.  In recent years the marble frieze was restored to the tune of £3 million.  Other artefacts from Turkey can be found in the Archaologische Staatssammling Museum in Munich.


Some artefacts smuggled from Turkey has been offered for sale in auctions and the Turkish authorities has attempted to stop these sales and failed to stop an auction of several artefacts held at Sotheby’s in New York last year. 


Stolen items were restituted to the Turkish embassy in London in May 2008, after tiles and decorated doors worth around $200,000 were recovered by Scotland Yard.  The doors were stolen in June 2002 from the Amaysa Mehmet Pasha Mosque, and later were put up for auction at Sotheby’s Islamic sale in 2005, but being identified as stolen, they were withdrawn from sale.  A set of two tile panels in December 2002 also turned up at Sotheby’s to go into their London Islamic sale in 2007.  Again they were identified as stolen and withdrawn from sale.  A third set of items, some 18th century tiles depicting the holy site of Kaa’ba in Mecca had been stolen from the Cezri Kasim Pasha Mosque in Eyup in August 2003, were acquired by a British dealer.  He checked their provenance and found that they were stolen.


The people of Bodrum went to the European Court of Human Rights, in an attempt to get artefacts stolen from Halicarnassus.  You will find King Mausolos’s mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, housed in the British Museum and it has been on display for some 150 years.  Unfortunately the British museum is not so willing to enter into negotiations for the restitution of these artefacts.  A petition was said to have been filed to the British authorities for the return of the mausoleum but a Bodrum based NGO found that no official petition existed.  Negotiations were begun in 2006 but I have found nothing to suggest that this has been successful or indeed that the negotiations are still on going.


 Again the British Museum is also housing the Knidos Lion (see picture right) and statue of Demeter and its restitution is being sought by officials from Datça.  The Ministry of Culture and Tourism have been petitioned by the Mayor of Datça for the return of these treasures. Marble replicas of theses sculptures have been made and exhibited at the city park, so that the public are kept aware to their existence.


Even today, artefacts and being stolen and recently in a BBC report a journalist visited the ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Perge.  The journalist interviewed the “security” guard only to be told that his cousin who lived a short distance away was responsible for some of the missing artefacts.  With a stark warning that the cousin was a convicted murderer, the journalist continued on to interview him.  Dressed in a suit, he explained that yes, he thought it was wrong to loot the sites but he needed the money.  He usually sold the items on the black market, with no idea what they were worth or where they would end up.  The last item, a large statue, which he had found, he had turned over to the authorities, only to be reward with 300 Turkish Lira.  He claimed, just enough to have a night out with his friends.


The most important artefacts have or are disappearing and it is feared they will lose their historical value and meaning. Turkish investigative journalist, Özgen Acar, has spent 30 years trailing art smugglers.  His findings have helped bring prestigious foreign museums to court and treasures have been restituted back to Turkey.  He has received many threats and even had a kidnap attempt, been thrown out of New York galleries and taken to court in Turkey.


So how can this smuggling effectively be stopped? In the opinion for Özgen Acar it is all about changing the attitude of the buyer.  Court cases won by Turkey have discouraged Museums and collectors from buying smuggled works.  Turkey should have agreements with leading museums not to buy stolen works but instead house special exhibitions.  Turkey has sent at least 35 exhibitions abroad over the last 15 years or so.  Exposing the smuggling mafia (Özgen Acar description!) with their international connections and put them out of business.  One such case was Edip Telli who had to quit smuggling and in London his brother was imprisoned for heroin smuggling. 


We can only hope that over the coming years, eventually exposing the smuggling rings is successful and satisfactory agreements can be reached with leading museums for either exhibitions or restitution of the artefacts back to Turkey, and that they are securly exhibited in their home land.






www.elginism.com, Should stolen treasure be returned to Turkey? (February 2005) 

Today’s Zaman, How smuggled Turkish artefacts fill foreign museums (January 2009)

Today’s Zaman, Smuggled Turkish Artefacts adorn world (January 2009)

The Art Newspaper, Stolen mosque artefacts returned to Turkey (May 2008)

www.unesco.orgWe have to change the buyers attitude” Date unknown,  Özgen Acar

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