Turkey must be more persistent in repatriation of ancient artifacts: Veteran journalist Özgen Acar
Turkish governments are not showing enough persistence to secure the return of ancient artifacts, according to veteran journalist Özgen Acar, who has focused much of his five-decade career on the repatriation of ancient heritage.
“Repatriation is important but preventing smuggling is more important,” said Acar, whose reporting in the 1980s about the whereabouts of various stolen artifacts prompted a turning point in the issue in Turkey.
An ancient gold crown smuggled abroad was recently returned to Turkey. Is there any particular aspect in this case that you can highlight?
The way that this artifact was defined by the Culture and Tourism Ministry was mistaken. It said the crown was found in the burial chamber of a “rich person,” but it was actually found in the burial chamber of Hecatomnus, the father of Mausoleus, whose tomb is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Hecatomnus was a ruler of Caria, so he was not a “rich person.” This example shows the lack of interest among some in the Culture Ministry.
This crown was smuggled to Scotland. When the Scottish police saw it in customs they found out that three Turkish men had brought it to Scotland with the intention of selling it. The Scottish police ended up doing something that other countries do not do: It informed Turkey. In a very remarkable approach, the Scots allowed the crown to be taken to Turkey in order to find out scientifically whether it had actually come from Anatolia. The crown was returned to Scotland after the analysis of the Turkish Atomic Energy Agency, and once it was confirmed that it hailed from Anatolia the crown was again sent back to Turkey. We are grateful to Scotland and I hope it sets an example to other countries.
How do you see the performance of various Turkish governments in terms of the repatriation of ancient heritage?
There have been ups and downs. Some ministers and authorities in the ministry are determined about it; others are less interested and less persistent. There have been many ministers who have come and gone. We need more institutional awareness in the ministry. There are several artifacts that have been spotted abroad and are known to everybody, which I myself have written about it, but there is still no serious pursuit.
Officials in the ministry keep changing frequently. The newcomers do not known the background to the files, which means they have to start from scratch. Time passes, which weakens efforts for repatriation. The past efforts of officials are not appreciated and the newcomers are able to “own” the success of a repatriated artifact. This kills the appetite of the bureaucracy.
What are some of the turning points in terms of repatriation?
Back in the Ottoman era several ancient works went abroad due to various sultans’ belief that they were not important and were “just stones.” Osman Hamdi Bey [1842-1910], the Ottoman administrator who was also an accomplished archaeologist, restricted the authority of the sultan by issuing a decree banning the transfer of ancient works abroad. Atatürk [the founder of the Republic of Turkey] was also keen on protecting ancient works, so there was a stalling of smuggling during the early years of the republic.
Then after World War II dozers and tractors were distributed within the framework of the U.S.’s Marshall Plan. This enabled farmers to dig deeper and also opened up new roads, which inadvertently led to a rise in smuggling. Farmers brought the coins that they unearthed to jewelers, who in turn took them to Istanbul and to [non-Muslim minorities prevailing among] merchants in the Grand Bazaar. As a result of this an ancient artifact mafia developed, which smuggled many antiquities abroad over the years.
In 1983 the government finally passed Law 2836, which was an important step against smuggling. But the law has a number of shortcomings. The internet is today full of information about how and where to find antiquities, even though this is a country where Wikipedia, for example, is currently banned. Metal detectors are often soldfreely online.. All this should be restricted or at least better monitored. Repatriation is important but what is more important is preventing smuggling.
What was the turning point in Turkey in terms of repatriation? Was it the return of the Lydian treasures?
Indeed. The return journey of the Lydian treasures was triggered in 1970 when Peter Hopkirk, a British journalist who came to Turkey to seek cooperation to track treasures smuggled from Uşak and sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, contacted me. Over the years I went to New York three times and I wrote the first article about the issue in 1986. The Turkish government then sued the museum and the case lasted six years. Realizing that it would lose the case, the museum authorities decided to return the Lydian treasures before the court made its ruling. Turkey therefore realized that it could have smuggled ancient work repatriated.
Then came the case of the Elmalı Treasure, which included a total of 1,900 coins and was dubbed the “Hoard of the Century.” One of the richest Americans had bought it and after Turkey filed a lawsuit he returned it upon realizing he would lose the case. When ancient artifacts taken abroad during the Ottoman era were found by divers in sunken ships in the English Channel and then returned to Turkey, that was also seen as an important turning point that set a precedent. The Turkish state learned that it could secure the return of stolen artifacts, even ones taken abroad during the Ottoman times.
What is the current situation in terms of illicit traffic of ancient heritage and the campaign against it?
Illicit traffic is continuing at full speed. What’s more, smugglers are making use of technology. For example, many are putting x-ray machines under their cars, which can conduct geological scanning. The measures taken by the state in response generally fall short against smuggling. The relevant department in the Culture Ministry cannot follow up all cases. That department needs reinforcement. In fact, Turkey needs an entirely new of organization to tackle this issue. The Culture and Tourism Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry must together form a new organizational set up to address the issue.
Let me give you an example. Imagine that information is gleaned about an illegal excavation by treasure hunters. Whenever that happens, officials of the nearest museum are charged with addressing the issue. But actually their primary duty is to stay in the museum and take care of the museum. It should be the duty of archaeologists and the police to go immediately to that place. The head of Istanbul museums is currently responsible for four different excavations in the city; that is wrong.
In terms of repatriation, Turkey should apply a different approach for each case. For example, a sarcophagus smuggled from Perge was being exhibited at New York’s Brooklyn Museum. I found out that it had been lent by an American businessman. According to U.S. law you can reduce tax on the value of artifacts more than 100 years old if you donate them to an institution. For that reason I advised the Turkish government to not go to courts over the case but instead to found a Turkish foundation in the U.S. for the businessman to donate to. As a result, the businessman got his tax deduction and the sarcophagus was returned to Turkey by that Turkish foundation.
Presumably there has been a rise in illicit trafficking due to the wars in Iraq and Syria.
Indeed. But the Turkish government is doing a good job on this. If you go to museums in Gaziantep, Urfa or Hatay you will see ancient artifacts from Syria. They are conserved in the depots to be returned to Syria after the country regains stability.
WHO IS ÖZGEN ACAR?
After 1980 he worked as daily Milliyet’s Greece correspondent and later its New York correspondent. After three years of freelancing in the United States he returned to work at Cumhuriyet in 1990. In 1991, he conducted research in Washington about the U.S.’s cultural property act on behalf of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
His work has been published in several international archeology magazines, including the U.S. Archeology Institute’s magazine “Archeology” and the Italian magazine “Archeo.” Three of his research projects have been featured as front page stories of the U.S. magazine “Connoisseur.”
Acar’s investigative reporting has been instrumental in the repatriation of more than 15 historic artifacts in Turkey, including the Lydian treasures and the the “Decadrahmi Hoard.” His reporting has also been crucial to the return of antiquities to Cyprus and Greece.
He has been awarded the Italian Order of Chivalry for his work.