Turkey says return objects or forget loans

Roman and Ottoman-era exhibitions will suffer as US and European museums face tougher calls for restitution



Turkey is pressing ahead with restitution claims for key objects in international museums, using the threat of refusing exhibition loans. “We became conscious of the cards in our hands and started to use them,” said the culture and tourism minister, Ertugrul Gunay, last month.

The minister claimed it would be impossible to organise shows on the Ottomans or Eastern Roman antiquities without borrowing from Turkish museums. “When a museum seeks our co-operation to hold an exhibition, if that museum has a stolen artefact, then we ask for the return of it,” Gunay told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Gunay also said that he will ban foreign excavators if they come from institutions that hold material that has been claimed. A third of the 120 excavations currently taking place are organised by international institutions.

The policy is already chalking up successes. Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum is now planning a show in 2016 of Turkish antiquities, including finds from the Midas Tomb at the ancient site of Gordion in central Turkey. This announcement comes five months after the museum agreed to return 24 pieces of gold jewellery, around 2400BC, from ancient Troy in north-west Turkey, which were bought from a Philadelphia dealer in 1966. They will be shown in a planned new museum in Troy on indefinite loan. The Turkish authorities have agreed that the University of Pennsylvania can continue its excavations at Gordion.

Last December, the Dallas Museum of Art returned the Orpheus Mosaic, AD194, before a claim was made, after curators accepted that it had been looted from an archaeological site. The mosaic was bought at Christie’s in 1999 for $85,000 (with no provenance given). A scholarly article published in 2006 argued that it was removed from ancient Edessa in south-eastern Turkey, probably in the late 1990s. A criminal investigation is now being conducted by Turkey, which has also agreed to send a loan exhibition to Dallas in the next few years.

Since our report on Turkish claims a year ago (The Art Newspaper, March 2012, p1, p10), eight major museums have become subject to demands. In the UK, the British Museum has rejected a claim for the Samsat stele, a stone tablet from the first century BC. The Victoria and Albert Museum has been asked for a head from the Sidamara sarcophagus (third century BC). The museum offered it on long-term loan, but this has not been pursued by Turkey, possibly because it would be required to acknowledge that legal ownership rests with the London museum.

At the Louvre, in Paris, a large number of important tiles from the mausoleum of Sultan Selim II, who died in 1574, have been claimed, as have three objects in the State Museums of Berlin: the torso of a fisherman statue from Aphrodisias, a 13th-century mihrab from Konya and a cenotaph.

US museums facing restitution claims include New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has been asked for 18 antiquities donated by the collector Herbert Schimmel in 1989, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for ten items acquired between 1968 and 1974. The Cleveland Museum of Art has been asked to return 21 objects and the sixth-century Sion Treasure is being claimed from Dumbarton Oaks.

Despite some successes, the strategy could come at a price. The reduction in exhibitions requiring loans from Turkey will impact on scholarship and reduce tourism marketing opportunities. It could also end co-operation between Turkish institutions and some of the world’s most important museums.