Turkey is refusing to lend artefacts to leading British and American museums until the issue of disputed antiquities is resolved. The ban means Turkey will not lend artefacts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and London’s British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
The British Museum had asked for 35 items for the exhibition “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” (until 15 April). Although Turkish museums were agreeable to the loans, the ministry of culture blocked them, leaving the British Museum to find alternative artefacts at short notice.
As part of the growing Turkish campaign, loans have been blocked to museums with disputed objects in their collections.
The Met has confirmed that a dozen antiquities are now being claimed by Turkey, but would not identify the individual items. A museum spokeswoman says: “The matter is under discussion with the Turkish authorities.” This month, the Met is due to open “Byzantium and Islam” (14 March-8 July). Many loans are coming from the Benaki Museum in Athens, with none requested of Turkish museums.
Tolga Tuyluoglu, the head of the Turkish government’s culture and tourism office in London, confirmed that claims for the return of two artefacts in the British Museum and V&A are being pursued. Although there is a “good relationship” between Turkish and British cultural organisations, his government wants to resolve issues over the two antiquities “before discussing loans for exhibitions”.
The Turkish government wants the British Museum to return a carved stele (stone slab). Dating from the first century BC, it depicts King Antiochus I Epiphanes greeting Herakles-Verethragna. The stele was first recorded in 1882 when it was found in a field in Selik, near the town of Samsat in modern Turkey. The carved, sculpted relief, which is four feet high, had been used as an olive oil press and a large hole had been drilled through its centre. It was bought in 1911 by the archaeologist Leonard Woolley, who was digging in Carchemish with the permission of the Ottoman authorities.
When the first world war broke out, the area around Carchemish was fought over. After the war, the archaeological store was in Syria, then administered by the French. In 1927, Woolley exported the stele with the permission of the French authorities and it was bought by the British Museum.
Although a claim was made for the stele in 2005, it was not pursued by the Turkish authorities. In the meantime, loans between the two countries continued. Turkey’s claim to the stele was revived in January 2011 by its ambassador to London, Unal Cevikoz, after the appointment of a new director-general of cultural heritage and museums, Osman Murat Suslu. With the “Hajj” exhibition in mind, the British Museum was keen to resolve the issue. (Mecca was controlled by the Ottoman empire from 1517 to 1916, so many historic artefacts have ended up in Turkish museums.) The British Museum requested objects from the Topkapi Palace, the Turbeler Museum, and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum.
A British Museum spokeswoman told us last month: “The museum would be willing to discuss a loan of the stele, subject to the usual conditions. The trustees cannot consent to the transfer of ownership and firmly believe that it should remain part of the museum’s collection, where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience.” It is on display in the Near East Galleries.
The V&A is facing a similar problem over its planned exhibition “The Ottomans”, for which loans from Turkey are essential. The show is due to focus on the development of Ottoman art from the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the 19th century. Scheduled for 2014, then delayed a year, it is now on hold.
The Turkish authorities have made a restitution claim for the stone head of a child, representing Eros, from the famed third-century BC Sidamara sarcophagus (The Art Newspaper, October 2010, p9). The head was removed in 1882 by the archaeologist Charles Wilson, and donated to the V&A by his family in 1933.
The head is now in store at the V&A. The Sidamara sarcophagus, which is otherwise intact, is on display in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum.
A V&A spokeswoman says that the head was legitimately acquired and the museum is not allowed to deaccession. “The offer of a long-term loan of the head to Turkey has been discussed,” she adds. The museum plans to continue with the Ottoman show “once discussions over loans from Turkish collections achieve progress”.
o See p39 for more on “Hajj”