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Turkey Battles Museums for Return of Antiquities Following Arab Spring

Orpheus mosaic from the 2nd Century AD repatriated by the Dallas
Museum of Art to Turkey December 5th. 

Since the Arab Spring the new Turkish government is taking aggressive measures against American and European museums by demanding the return of antiquities.  In the renewed search for a national identity, Turkey is embarking on what some museums are calling “cultural blackmail.”  Under the leadership of Cultural Minister Ertugrul Gunay, Turkey is refusing to lend objects for exhibitions unless antiquities with a unknown provenance are returned to the country, delaying all licenses for archeological excavations, and publicly denouncing museums as enablers of illicit looting.  Gunay stated in The New York Times: “Artifacts, just like people, animals or plants, have souls and historical memories.  When they are repatriated to their countries, the balance of nature will be restored.”

Turkey has rejected the 1970 UNESCO agreement, even though they ratified the understanding in 1981 that allows antiquities already outside their home countries to remain outside without legal action.  Instead, the Turkish government is calling for the return of their antiquities under a 1906 Ottoman-era law that banned the export of artifacts.  They have had mixed success in their attack on museums.

Last month, the University of Pennslyvania Museum agreed to lend 24 artifacts from ancient Troy to Turkey indefinately.  Last year, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin reluctantly returned the 3,000 year old Bogazkoy Sphinx from the Hittite Empire.  Turkey claimed that the object was taken from the country for restoration in 1917 and never returned.  The Pergamon was threatened that if they failed to return the Sphinx that Turkey would block all future archeological excavations by German scholars.  Soon after, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston returned the top-half of the second-century Weary Herakles that was noted in 1990 to match the lower portion of a statue excavated in Perge.

Turkish officials celebrate the return of the 2nd Century Weary
Herakles from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in June. 

Most recently on December 5th, the Dallas Museum of Art agreed to return the 2nd AD Orpheus Mosaic to Turkey.  They purchased the mosaic in 1999 from Christie’s for US$85,000.  Upon discovering that the mosaic was looted, Maxwell Anderson, the museum’s director, notified the Turkish government and negotiated an exchange: the mosaic will be returned to Turkey as long as they agree to loan objects to the Dallas Museum for temporary exhibitions.  This is the first pre-emptive move by an American museum, and provides the Dallas Museum with a monopoly on Turkish objects allowed for temporary display in the United States.

Turkey’s claims against numerous museums remain pending.  These include:

  • The Louvre: 1,577 tiles from the Hagia Sophia 
  • The Pergamon Museum: The Pergamon Altar 
  • The British Museum: A 1st Century BC Stele 
  • The Victoria and Albert Museum: A 3rd Century BC child sarcophagus head
  • The J. Paul Getty Museum: Four 200 AD marble muses 
  • The Cleveland Museum of Art: 21 objects, including a 2nd Century headless marble statue believed to represent March Aurelius 
  • The Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC: The 6th Century “Sion Treasure” 
  • Bowling Green State University, Ohio: A Roman mosaic from Zeugma 
The most outspoken museum fighting the repatriation of antiquities to Turkey is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  This summer, Turkey filed a criminal complaint against the museum in Turkish court demanding the return of 18 objects believed to be illegally excavated and now housed in the Norbert Schimmel Collection at the MET.  The complaint is the result of failed negotiations between Turkey and the MET.

At the moment, Turkey official refuses to lend any items to the MET, a stunning development after the opening of the Islamic Wing in November 2011.  The MET argues that the collection was acquired legally and that they are compliant with the 1970 UNESCO convention.  Thomas P. Campbell, director of the MET, acknowledged that if any illegal activity associated with their collection was discovered they will address the situation on a case-by-case basis.  He stated in an interview with The New York Times on October 1st: “We are in the business of celebrating Turkish culture, and it is the great displays in London, Paris and New York, more than anything else, that will encourage people to go to Turkey and explore their cultural heritage, and not just the sun and beach.”  The situation has yet to be resolved, but without doubt will be decided in court.  

Turkey’s aggressive measures against large international museums has raised controversy in the art world.  It has returned the focus of repatriation again to the question: Who Owns Antiquity?  Turkey is portrayed in media reports as the aggressor and the museums as victims.  This seems to be the general consensus, but moral arguments continue to go back and forth without any sign of resolution in the near future.  

Sources: The Art Newspaper, The Dallas News, The New York Times, images from Looting Matters and the Art Newspaper.