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Turkey: Ankara Seeks the Return of Looted Antiquities

The top half of the Weary Herakles was returned by Boston’s Museum of Fine Art to Turkey in September 2011. (Photo: Boston Museum of Fine Art)

Turkey's Ministry of Culture is playing hardball with some of the world’s most prestigious museums. The ministry is refusing to lend historical artifacts to leading museums in the United States and the United Kingdom until they return antiquities that Turkish officials maintain were illegally taken from Turkey.

"When you visit the world's big museums in the United States, England, Germany and France you see that most of the precious artifacts came from Turkey, Italy, Greece and Egypt," Turkish Minister of Culture Ertugral Gunay, the architect behind the hardball policy, said while opening a new museum in Izmir this May. "Some were taken out with some sort of legal formulation in the past, some others were looted from our historical sites."

The lending ban has already hit the British Museum, as Turkey declined to lend 35 articles for the major exhibition 'Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam,” at the beginning of this year. Similar sanctions have been introduced against New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

The campaign is targeting some prominent possessions of world-famous museums. "When you go to New York's Metropolitan Museum, when you walk through the main gate on the left side, you see an interesting Roman sarcophagus, it was smuggled out of Turkey by the US's first Consul General at the end of 19th century," observes Ozgen Acar, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, who has devoted much of his life to investigating the illegal removal of Turkish artifacts. "Then you walk to the Byzantine section you see a golden chalice which is believed to have been a chalice used by Christ, which was taken by the French when they occupied Antakya (province in Turkey)."

The return of the antiquities is a major component of Gunay’s museum strategy, which aims to harness Turkey's rich heritage. New museums across Turkey have opened in recent years, with even more planned. Established institutions, meanwhile, have undergone expensive makeovers. Turkish officials are seeking the return of thousands of pieces to help fill their own museums. “We have some lists, many, many lists for Germany, United Kingdom, United States, for France and maybe for Austria,” said Nezih Basgelen editor of the Archeological and Art Magazine.

Turkey's rich past is still a favorite for archaeologists from around the world. That popularity is also seen by the Turkish Ministry of Culture as a means to apply pressure. In 2010, Ankara threatened to suspend the permit of a German archaeologist working on a major site, unless a German Museum returned a massive Hittite sphinx removed from Hattusa in Turkey in 1917. The museum eventually complied. It is believed Ankara is considering using such pressure again.

The ministry has faced some criticism for its tough policy. “There is still a looting anarchy in Turkey, at the same time they are trying to bring back items from museums around the world. They need to stop the ongoing looting first," stated Acar, the newspaper columnist who is an expert on stolen artifacts.

Ministry representatives dispute Acar’s assertion, saying that there has been a 12-fold increase in funding for archaeological excavation over the past dozen years, much of which is used for protecting the sites.

Money is a powerful driving force behind the ministry's policy. Turkey's archeological past is now a key part of its drive to attract tourists, with international advertising promoting the country as a destination that offers more than just sun and beaches. Part of that policy includes the construction of one of world’s largest archeological museums for the capital Ankara, due to be completed in 2023.

There are fears that new aggressive policy could backfire. “We can lose many things, friendship and some collaboration possibilities for the future,” fears Basgelen, the arts magazine editor. “If we discuss [the situation] logically, we can find some solutions.”

But voices advocating moderation are being drowned out by fiery political rhetoric, with the Culture Ministry claiming the issue is connected to national honor and righting a century's old wrong. What is more, Turkey is enlisting allies in its battle. An agreement with Greece has been signed to join forces in their struggle to return artifacts and negotiations are continuing with Italy and Egypt.

Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

Turkey: Ankara Seeks the Return of Looted Antiquities

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