Victory in campaign to seize back priceless antiquities

(Photograph courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

ISTANBUL, July 2011, The Times

For three decades, a torso and legs were all that Turks had to remind them of one of the more blatant antiquity thefts of the late 20th century.

While the bust of the 1,800-year-old Weary Herakles graced the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, its lower parts stood forlornly in Antalya Museum, near where the statue was discovered.

Now, after four years of negotiation, the American museum has announced that it will return its half later this year, marking Turkey’s latest victory in a campaign to get back hundreds of ancient sculptures and artworks pilfered over previous decades.

Artefacts in Britain, France, Germany and half a dozen other countries are being targeted as Ankara underscores its growing confidence on the world stage by playing hardball with foreign museums.

In May, Germany’s Pergamon Museum reluctantly agreed to return a 3,500-year-old Hittite sphinx after Ertugrul Günay, Turkey’s Culture Minister, threatened to ban German teams from several archaeological digs in the country.

Other targets include a basalt stele from the 1st century BC, currently in the British Museum, and a ceramic panel from the tomb of an Ottoman Sultan in the Louvre that was taken to France for restoration in 1895, then replaced with a fake.

The modern-era story of Weary Herakles started in 1980 when the lower part of the statue, a Roman copy of a famous Greek sculpture, was unearthed at Perge in southern Turkey.

A year later, the head and shoulders surfaced in the United States, where the Museum of Fine Arts and a pair of New York collectors bought them from a German dealer.

Turkish archaeologists were convinced the part in Boston was looted and smuggled from the country at the same time as the lower part was excavated in 1980. But it was not until 1992 that plaster casts of the statue were moulded and matched, proving the two halves were from the same statue.

Though it had no records of the statue’s provenance, the US museum refused to return its half, claiming it could have been found “any time since the Italian Renaissance”, and pointing out that Turkish law only protected artefacts taken after 1906.

“It’s only in this last couple of years that they’ve presented us with photos and other evidence of looting from that site.” said Katherine Getchell, the deputy director of the Boston museum.

Though the dispute over Weary Herakles ended amicably, with the two sides negotiating a temporary loan of the completed statue to the Boston museum, Turkey is now willing to get tough on looted treasure.

At the end of last year, the government took the unprecedented step of refusing to renew the excavation licenses for three French and German archaeological teams, in a move widely seen as a shot over the bows in Turkey’s antiquities battle.

One site was Aizanoi, where a German team had been working since 1926. Though Turkey said it was unsatisfied with progress at the site, the dig’s leader, Ralf von den Hoff, believes the restitution issue was the real reason.

“A research project has been cancelled in the interests of political affairs,” he said. After Culture Minister Günay threatened to cancel more digs that Pergamom Museum agreed to return the Hittite sphinx, first taken to Germany for restoration in 1915.

“This is a revolution,” said Mr Günay after the agreement regarding the sphinx. “This is a great development for the restitution of all our antique artefacts from abroad. We will fight in the same way for the restitution of the other artefacts.” Turkey, which was the second fastest-growing economy in the G20 last year, is increasingly positioning itself as a major regional power.

“It enables them to ask for things they didn’t have the confidence to ask for before,” said Nora Seni, director of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies.

However, the British Museum told The Times that it would not be returning the Roman basalt stele it acquired in 1926, which Turkey officially claimed in 2006.

“It has been published frequently and its location was well-known to the Turkish authorities, who at no stage between 1927 and 2005 suggested it had been improperly acquired,” said a spokesman.

“The Trustees of the British Museum therefore continue to regard the stele as an integral part of the museum’s collections of world cultures.”


ANALYSIS: Confident nation is no longer afraid of its past

Flush with economic success and growing diplomatic clout, Turkey is showing its newfound confidence in its battle for the return of stolen artefacts.

Its tactic of threatening European archaeological teams demonstrates that it no longer needs foreign expertise to explore and catalogue its historical riches. Over the past two decades, Turkey has undergone extraordinary economic growth, which has led to the opening of a host of new universities and more research funding. For outside teams, the annual renewal of digging permits is no longer a certainty.

Turkey’s reinvigorated interest in its ancient antiquities stems from a change in national outlook. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, below, founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923, its identity rested on the rejection of its Islamic past and the claims of any other nations to the land of Anatolia.

For decades, Turkey’s leaders were indifferent to their own Ottoman heritage, let alone to the wealth of archaeological artefacts left behind by many pre-Turkish civilisations.

When the Islam-inspired Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, they brought with them a love affair for all things Ottoman that has helped to reawaken the country to its past. Turkey no longer views the presence of Byzantine, Greek, and Roman ruins as an implicit challenge to its sovereignty.

The irony is that this new interest comes at a time when a host of massive infrastructure projects, particularly dams, are threatening to destroy much of the heritage.

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