Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities | The Nation


Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

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Sharon WaxmanA counterfeit hippocampus on display in Usak, Turkey

About the Author

Britt Peterson
Britt Peterson is assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

On a 1984 visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Turkish journalist named Ozgen Acar noticed a group of fifty artifacts labeled "East Greek treasure" that resembled a collection that had gone missing some twenty years before. The treasure, Acar suspected, had been snatched by grave robbers from Sardis, an ancient city in western Turkey, which served as the capital of the Lydian empire at its peak in the sixth and seventh centuries BC. (Herodotus tells us that its last king, the affluent Croesus, was the first person to mint coins of pure silver and gold, hence the saying "as rich as Croesus.") Acar, who had spent the previous decade tracking antiquities looters in the small towns surrounding Sardis, took his suspicions to the Turkish Ministry of Education. It turned out that the Lydian Hoard had passed through a number of smugglers and semireputable dealers before reaching the Met in the 1960s, and there was plenty of evidence that the Met had known something of the provenance of the objects at the time and willfully ignored it. The Turkish government sued the Met for the unconditional return of the cache and, after a six-year legal battle, finally won. In 1995 the Lydian Hoard was returned to the small town of Usak, in Sardis, sparking an outpouring of national pride and a flurry of copycat lawsuits.

The celebrations were to be short-lived. Unlike in other "source countries" such as Greece, Italy and Egypt, the people of Turkey are the product of successive invasions and migrations. Modern Turks, who are primarily descended from thirteenth-century Ottoman conquerors, have little in common, ethnically or culturally, with the Trojans, Lydians and Mycenaeans of the distant past. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Turks have been most eager to tour attractions that showcase relics of their Muslim heritage, such as the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine basilica later converted into a mosque, and Topkapi Palace, once home to the Ottoman sultans and the present custodian of their crown jewels. These sites each host about a million visitors every year, making them the two most popular attractions in Istanbul. Compare this with the little museum in Usak, which received exactly 769 visitors between 2001 and 2006, a number that failed to impress the Hoard's previous stewards: the number of people "who've visited those treasures in Turkey," sniffed a museum spokesman, "is roughly equal to one hour's worth of visitors at the Met."

At that time, the Usak museum was so poorly appointed that its lone security guard doubled as the ticket taker. The vitrines holding the objects were barely protected; there was no alarm system, and the lock was the sort one can pick with a hairpin. In 2005 officials were forced to admit that several pieces had corroded since arriving in Turkey; the Usak museum lacked sufficient funds to care for them properly.

So it should have come as no shock when, in April 2006, the highlight of the Hoard, a golden hippocampus (sea horse) much beloved by tourists and locals alike, was revealed to have been stolen. At almost twice the weight of the original, the hippocampus that was--and remains--on display was an obvious fake. Kazim Akbiyikoglu, the museum's curator and Acar's old friend and ally, was fingered as the thief. Acar, who had by then devoted twenty years of his life to winning back the Hoard, was devastated.

A verdict has yet to come down in Akbiyikoglu's trial, but the evidence amassed against him seems damning, and the case has exacerbated Western apprehension that museums in source countries are unequipped to handle precious antiquities. On the heels of such embarrassment, the Turkish government has been shamed into putting a stop to a stream of litigation against Western museums, much of which was likely to succeed. The hippocampus, to date, remains missing, most likely having been melted into bullion and sold on the black market.

In Loot, Sharon Waxman, formerly of the New York Times, investigates the Lydian heist as well as similar curatorial debacles around the world. On separate floors of Cairo's Egyptian Museum, she reports, two research teams feuding over trivial logistical matters simultaneously catalog the museum's rich collection of artifacts, each using its own distinct, incompatible notation system. Waxman stops by the then uncompleted museum at the base of the Acropolis--which is meant to house the Elgin Marbles one day, should the British Museum ever return them--where local protests and managerial incompetence delayed construction for years.

But Waxman appears to believe that, despite everything, these countries have some legitimate claim to the antiquities that have been taken through various semilegal and extralegal contrivances throughout the ages. And she is honest--often angrily so--about the ambiguous circumstances under which many of these objects left their homes. One of the best passages in Loot is a tour of the Louvre's cluttered, poorly labeled antiquities galleries, with Waxman supplementing the stingily worded display cards to create a panoramic exposition of French misadventures in Egypt. Visiting the Chamber of Kings, for example, where a three-wall bas-relief mural tells the story of eleven centuries of Egyptian royal history, Waxman corrects the Louvre's cursory explanation--"elements" were "lost in transport"--with a story of breathtaking greed and fraud: in the 1840s, a French explorer paid a midnight visit to a temple in Karnak, pried out the mural and bribed a local governor to allow him to ship it, in pieces, to Paris, where well-meaning workers coated the reliefs with a layer of varnish that soaked away the 3,500-year-old paint below, leaving the mural almost colorless. This section of Loot, as well as similar ones on the Met and the British Museum, makes one wish Waxman would turn the book's contents into a series of museum audio tours on tucked-under-the-rug looting scandals.

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