Turkey is set on a collision course with many of the world’s leading museums, by refusing exhibition loans because of antiquities claims. European museums that are being targeted include the Louvre, Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In America, claims are being lodged against New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Cleveland Museum of Art and Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC. Turkey’s tough new approach was first reported by The Art Newspaper (March 2012, p1, p10; April, p6).
Among the exhibitions that have been hit is a British Museum project on the Uluburun ship, the world’s oldest recovered wreck. Dating from the 14th century BC, it was discovered (with its cosmopolitan cargo) in 1982, six miles off the south-west Turkish coast. It was put on display 12 years ago at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. The British Museum was discussing an exhibition, along with reciprocal loans to Turkey, but this has had to be dropped because of Turkey’s claim for the Samsat stele.
Refusing loan requests to museums that reject Turkish antiquities claims represents a new policy for prime minister Recep Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003 leading a centre-right government. Although his administration is pro-Western and keen on joining the European Union, repatriation of antiquities strikes a nationalist appeal with the electorate.
The Turkish government has been encouraged by the success of Italy in making antiquities claims against several American museums in recent years. More importantly, it has been buoyed up by three successful restitutions of its own last year. In February 2011 the Serbian government returned 1,485 coins and 379 small antiquities, which had been seized at its border in 2004. Two restitutions were also made by major museums. In July Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum returned the Bogazkoy Sphinx, dating from around 1600BC and found at the Hittite capital of Hattusa in 1915. It had been taken to Germany for restoration in 1917, but was not returned. Last year pressure for restitution was intensified by the Turkish authorities, who withdrew permits for German archaeologists to work on Turkish sites. This led to a decision to return the sphinx, which is now with its twin in the Bogazkoy Museum.
Two months later Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts returned the top half of the second-century AD Roman sculpture of the Weary Herakles. In 1990, scholars had noted that it matched the bottom half of a statue that had been excavated in Perge a decade earlier and was at the Antalya Museum. The Boston museum eventually decided to voluntarily relinquish its half, acquired in 1981 (although initially jointly purchased with collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White, full ownership passed to the museum in 2004).
The man behind last year’s successes is Osman Murat Suslu, the director general of cultural heritage and museums. Using a carrot-and-stick approach, he is calling for cultural co-operation, but firmly warning that this will be withdrawn from museums that refuse to accept claims. Suslu has strengthened his department’s anti-smuggling and intelligence bureau to show he means business. He says that he regards it as a “win-win” policy, on the grounds that Turkish action also helps to stamp out the illegal trade in antiquities.
Some of the claim letters were signed by prime minister Erdogan, an indication that the new policy has approval from the very top. Nevertheless, there are concerns that the Turkish strategy could backfire for the ministry of tourism and culture, led by Ertugrul Gunay. Repatriating a few antiquities is unlikely to increase foreign tourism, but retaliation against Western museums may have a negative impact on its image abroad. Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs is also monitoring the policy’s impact on the country’s international relations.
Andrew Finkel (author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know) says that the claims are “a matter of national pride”, although for the ministry of tourism and culture it represents “a distraction from the hard work” of protecting what is in Turkish museums. He points out that “exhibitions generate enormous publicity and goodwill”, and with tourism and culture under the same ministry there will inevitably be tensions.
Meanwhile, the Western museums facing claims are now engaged in further provenance research on the targeted antiquities (the “Chasing Aphrodite” website has posted what information is readily available; www.chasingaphrodite.com). Under Ottoman laws of 1884 and 1906, antiquities belong to the state, but this has sometimes been only loosely enforced.
After the imposition of the Turkish loans ban, there is growing concern about its impact. Although many of the museums facing claims have told us that no loans have actually been refused, formal requests are normally only made when there is a reasonable chance of success—and a number of exhibition projects are currently on hold. Linking loan requests and restitution demands could be taken up by other nations, creating a damaging impact on the museum community worldwide.
What Turkey wants…
Turkey is claiming a set of important 1577 tiles from the mausoleum of Sultan Selim II in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. One panel was acquired by French collector Albert Sorlin-Dorigny (dentist to the Sultan) and then passed to the Louvre in 1895. A Louvre spokeswoman says the tiles were “acquired in good faith”, but the Hagia Sophia Museum states on its website that they were simply removed “for restoration”.
A spokeswoman for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (which oversees Berlin’s state museums) says that “Turkey has repeatedly expressed the wish for the return of objects from various European museums, among them those in Berlin.” No details of the claims have been released, although Turkey has long called for the restitution of the Pergamon Altar. Dating from the second century BC, the Greek monument was acquired by Germany under an 1879 agreement with the Ottoman government. In 2001, the Turkish culture minister asked for the return of the altar, although it is unclear whether this represented a formal claim.
British Museum, London
Turkey is claiming a first century BC stele, which was found at Samsat, near Selik. It was acquired by archaeologist Leonard Woolley in 1911 and bought by the British Museum 16 years later. The museum is willing to discuss a loan, but not deaccessioning.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A claim is being made for a sculpture of a child’s head (right) from the important third-century BC Sidamara sarcophagus. The fragment had been removed by archaeologist Sir Charles Wilson in 1882 and donated to the museum in 1933. It is currently in store and the V&A is now discussing a long-term loan to Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Turkey is claiming 18 items, all of which were donated by New York collector Herbert Schimmel in 1989. Most are Hittite, including a silver 14th- to 13th-century BC vessel terminating in a bull (below). A museum statement says that it is “not aware that any artefacts are Turkish state property”.
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Ten items acquired between 1968 and 1974 are being claimed. They include four marble statues of muses from about AD200, which were owned by a dealer, Elie Borowski, by 1968. A Getty spokeswoman says: “We are in dialogue with officials from the Turkish ministry of culture regarding some objects in our collection. We expect those discussions to continue.”
Cleveland Museum of Art
A claim is being made for 21 objects. Most important is a bronze Roman headless statue (second century AD), probably representing Marcus Aurelius, acquired in 1986, with provenance given by Cleveland as “Turkey, Bubon (?)” A museum spokeswoman says: “The policy is not to discuss publicly the substance of inquiries by foreign countries about objects in the museum’s collection”, on the grounds that this “encourages an informed and constructive dialogue”.
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC
The claim is for the sixth-century Sion treasure, which was discovered near Kumluca in 1963. Some of the liturgical silver and gold went to the Antalya Museum. Forty pieces, representing half the find, were sold by the dealer George Zakos to Mildred Bliss, who donated them to Dumbarton Oaks (part of Harvard University). The director of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Jan Ziolkowski, says: “We are confident that we have proper title to these antiquities.”
Bowling Green State University, Ohio
In 1965, Bowling Green acquired a Roman mosaic, which now appears to have been looted from Zeugma. The university’s president, Mary Mazey, has promised to “do the right thing” and discussions with the Turkish authorities are expected.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Turkey turns up the heat on foreign museums'