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BLOG Turkey’s Mission to Reclaim Its Lost Historical Treasures

16 September 2017 / Culture

Turkey to Reclaim Its Lost Historical Treasures

September the 13th was just an ordinary day for many people in Turkey, but for members of the history world, it was a cause for celebration. The 3rd century Roman sarcophagus of Hercules arrived back in Turkey, after a 7-year legal battle.

Depicting the 12 labours of Hercules, in 2010, Geneva customs seized it after a routine inventory check. Tapping into its potential to reach unbelievable amounts as a priceless historical artefact, smugglers took it out of Turkey more than 50 years ago.

After a lengthy court case with Swiss authorities to prove the sarcophagus was from the ancient city of Dokimion, current day Antalya region, the Swiss authorities ordered its return in 2015. However, its story is just one of many, and the Turkish government is tracking down and taking legal action to reclaim thousands of antiquities they say belong to Turkey.


Why Are Turkey’s Historical Treasures Scattered Around the World?

Blame for this sorry state-of-affairs lies with many people. Some say the Ottoman Empire neglected the historical value of their lands or were in desperate needs of funds. Hence in the late 19th century, the Pergamum Altar arrived in Berlin, stone by stone before being reconstructed and displayed in their museum.

The ancient city of Pergamum was one of the Seven Churches of Revelation as mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible. The excavator Carl Humann, who handled the removal of the great Zeus altar, said he had to act after seeing locals looting the ancient stones, to build their homes.

He had full permission of the Ottoman empire. It is now one of Germany’s top tourist attractions. The Berlin museum also holds the Great Gate of Miletus, also removed from Turkey in the 19th century.

Ignorance or lack of education is also responsible. Stories of locals taking stones from ancient cities to build homes are plentiful, as proven by the tale of how archaeologist Kenan Erim discovered Aphrodisias ancient city.

Sometimes locals sold historical artefacts hence the story of tourist Thelma Bishop who bought a Bronze Age urn in the 1960s for a few dollars, thinking it was only a souvenir. It was not until 50 years later when she decided to sell it, that she discovered it was instead a priceless artefact. She could have faced prosecution but returned the jug to Turkey instantly.


In another recent story, garden decorations in at the front of an apartment block in Antalya were in fact, 2000-year-old Roman granite columns. Even more astonishing the person responsible who found them many years ago in the Kaleici district of Antalya, said that 23 years ago, he received permission from the Antalya Museum Directorate to keep the columns if he looked after them.

Lastly, the black market of antiquities that is alive and kicking throughout the world is also responsible. Many collectors, museums and auction houses may be unaware items are stolen, but every month, a new story unfolds.

Just in May of this year, Istanbul police seized Byzantine and Roman coins from the passenger of a taxi. Even more alarming is that within the passenger’s store at the Grand Bazaar, they found many more artefacts, seals, and ceramic plates.


The Karun Treasure

The most famous story of looted objects from Turkey and the Black Market is the Karun treasure. After a series of devastating events befell the smugglers, the legacy of the treasure became wrapped up in tales of ancient curses.

Suspected to have been part of the legendary treasure chest of King Croesus, locals looted it from burial mounds in 1965. When the discovery became public, Turkey embarked on a six year, and highly expensive court case to get it all back.

They succeed and placed all the artefacts in a museum. However, the curator of the museum had a series gambling problem. Desperate for funds, he hooked up with a countrywide gang who were replicating artefacts. This intricate network of people placed the fake antiquities in museums and sold the originals on the black market.

An anonymous tip off in 2006, revealed the double dealing and authorities jailed the museum curator for 13 years. Rather than take responsibility, he insisted the Karun Treasure curse was why he gambled so much.

Other locals say the seven other men involved also suffered great misfortunate like cancer or they died violently. Rather than just believing the events were part of their haphazard lifestyle, they insist the cursed treasure ruined their lives.

The Kilia Idol Statue

Turkey’s war on claiming back its antiquities from museums and collectors around the world are proving fruitful because records show more than a thousand have come back home. However, it is not successful in all cases.

Ongoing legal battles surround the 5000-year-old Kilia Idol, a 23-centimetre statue sold by famous New York auctioneers Christie's for 14.5 million pounds. The New York district court refused Turkey’s application to make the sale invalid because they said the Ministry was too late. The case is still ongoing.


The Elmali Treasure and Ozgen Acar

Ozgen Acar, a highly respected investigative journalist, has spent many years, trying to retrieve the lost antiquities and artefacts of Turkey. Responsible for both the Karun treasure as well as the founding of the Kilia idol, one of his most successful finds was the 25 million-dollar Elmali treasure dating back to the Attica-Delos League.

In 1884, a local television repair man in Antalya made a simple metal detector and found buried ancient coins including medallion sized drachma coins of which at that time, only seven samples existed. The television man, with his homemade metal detector, had found 14 more. A Los Angeles TV producer bought one for one 600,00 USD while another collector bought various coins, for 3.5 million dollars.

At this point, the Turkish government were aware smugglers had taken the treasure out of Turkey, but they did not know where, until Ozgen Acar stepped up to the mark and discovered William Koch, one of America’s richest men owned many of them. After the Turkish government started legal actions, Koch settled out of court because he knew he would lose. The Elmali coins were returned to Turkey in 1999. Some say if it weren't for Ozgen Acar, the coins would still be lost.

Turkey’s Cultural Wars with Museums to Reclaim its Historical Treasures

Although legal battles have been ongoing for many years now, it is only in the last decade that Turkey has stepped up efforts for museums around the world to return artefacts. Many experts have labelled it Turkey’s art war, and have accused the country of playing games following threats that excavation permits will not be renewed unless museums return priceless antiquities on their wanted list.

The Turkish government admittedly denies this. What is clear though, is that they have no intention of backing down, hence their extensive list of wanted objects sitting in museums around the globe. The good news is that considering Turkey’s war to reclaim its archaeological treasures, racketeers in the black market may think twice before they peddle that priceless treasure.

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