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Restitution

V&A is willing to lend its fragment to reunite it with the Sidamara Sarcophagus in Istanbul

Turkish tomb could regain long-lost head

London. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London is willing to return a life-size marble head of a child to Turkey—but only as a loan, we have learned. Negotiations are ongoing and the artefact remains in storage. The head, representing Eros, is a fragment of the Sidamara Sarcophagus (third century BC), which is in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Paul Williamson, the V&A’s curator responsible for sculpture, says: “We would be willing to send the head back to Turkey on long-term loan, but agreement has not yet been reached on the conditions.”

The proposed loan poses two difficulties. First, Turkey would have to recognise the museum’s legal ownership of the head. Second, under Turkey’s laws, antiquities from Turkish soil cannot be exported. This even applies to those that are on loan from abroad—a problem that would have to be addressed.

In practice, the head would probably remain in Istanbul permanently, cemented to the sarcophagus. It could be recalled by the London museum, but this would probably be done only if it was not being cared for properly.

Turkey is also claiming objects from other major museums, including the British Museum, the Louvre, the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Turkey’s claims were aggressively pursued several years ago by Ertugrul Gunay, the minister of culture and tourism, and Osman Murat Suslu, his director-general of cultural heritage and museums. In January 2013, Omer Celik took over as minister, and three months later, Suslu was dropped. Since then, claims have been less vociferously pursued, which may mean that there is a greater chance of successful loan negotiations over the Sidamara head.

Permission granted in 1930s

The Art Newspaper has been granted access to the V&A’s archival file on the head, which reveals that the museum obtained the UK government’s permission to return it to Turkey in the 1930s.

The sarcophagus was discovered by the British archaeologist Charles Wilson in 1883 at Sidamara, in central Turkey. He hoped to return later to retrieve the sarcophagus, which he reburied, but he took the head, which was obviously more portable (and may have broken off). The sarcophagus was rediscovered in 1898 and taken to Istanbul.

In 1883, Wilson wrote to the V&A’s director: “I am trying to secure the [whole] sarcophagus for England and should wish the head eventually to go to whomever secures the sarcophagus.” In the meantime, he offered the head on loan. His daughter converted the loan into a donation in 1932.

In 1934, the museum considered returning the head to Turkey. Aziz Bey, the head of antiquities in Istanbul, offered, “in exchange, an object of the same value”. The UK’s Board of Education and Treasury agreed. It is unclear why the proposed exchange never took place.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Turkish tomb could regain long-lost head'