ART MARKET / Talking Turkey: Who owns the treasures of antiquity? The Turkish government has been fighting American museums for the return of some splendid hoards. But only laws that ensure finders fair compensation will prevent smuggling (CORRECTED)

Click to follow

WHEREVER great civilisations flourished in antiquity, art and artefacts still lie buried underground. Some came to be buried by chance while other items were purposely placed in tombs to ensure that the departed had a comfortable, even luxurious, life after death. Nowadays these artefacts are recovered surreptitiously by treasure hunters, inadvertently by peasant farmers or construction workers and carefully, slowly - with every scientific precaution - by trained archaeologists. Because of the big prices paid on world markets, much more is recovered unofficially than officially.

Who does it all belong to? Or, to put it another way, who should it belong to? The question of ownership has become an international issue. Many countries, especially developing ones, have passed laws claiming that all buried artefacts are the property of the state. But there are also de facto owners: the treasure hunters or peasants sell to smugglers, the smugglers sell on, directly or indirectly, to respectable dealers, and the dealers sell to museums and collectors. Has the country of origin the right to claim the stuff back?

Turkey, which played host to both Greek and Roman civilisations, not to mention indigenous earlier cultures and the later Byzantine empire, has embarked on a highly charged campaign to recover smuggled antiquities from America. The battles which are being played out between expensive attorneys representing museums, collectors and dealers on one hand, and the Republic of Turkey on the other, superficially turn on the letter of the law - whether the Turkish government can put forward evidence which will convince an American court to order restitution of individual items. Much more important, however, is the battle for hearts and minds - whose outcome will affect connoisseurs worldwide.

Collectors and museums are well aware that Greek and Roman antiquities offered for sale with no excavation history have almost certainly been smuggled at some time from one of the Mediterranean countries - but they buy them all the same. Turkey's total export ban is regarded as unrealistic, unenforceable and not something that needs to be taken seriously. The Turkish campaign is thus aimed at persuading Americans, and anyone else rich enough to buy antiquities, to respect Turkey's heritage laws - either out of embarrassment, because they don't want to be publicly linked with smugglers, or out of financial prudence, since smuggled treasures may be reclaimed without compensation.

A bizarre feature of the campaign is that the Turkish authorities have only followed up incidents reported by Connoisseur, a now defunct American art magazine. In the 1980s Connoisseur journalists dug up high-profile incidents which would cause the maximum embarrassment to American museums and collectors. After years of slow-moving legal exchanges, the confrontations that ensued are now beginning to be resolved. The crazy variety of solutions that have been found to the ownership issue highlight the murky realities that lie behind high-minded ethical arguments and suggest that heritage laws in Turkey and many other countries are in urgent need of revision.

In February a more-than-life-size marble statue of a woman, dating from around AD 90 and probably a likeness of the Roman Empress Domitia, went on display at the San Antonio Museum in Texas, two years after it had been seized from the same museum by the US Customs. Two dealers, Fuat Uzulmez of Munich and Fritz Burki of Zurich, had lent it to the museum in 1990, in the hope that it might find a patron to put up the dollars 1.8m purchase price. The Republic of Turkey claimed the statue following an article in Connoisseur but, in this case, the evidence proved too flimsy to convince an American court. On 10 February, in an uncontested judgment, the statue was returned to the two dealers - who were not required to reveal where it came from. They have sent it back on loan to the museum.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is doing less well in its argument with Turkey. The Turkish government has claimed a hoard of silver, gold and bronze objects of the 6th century BC; the reputed find-site suggests that they once belonged to a courtier of King Croesus of Lydia - the chap we would all like to be as rich as. The museum bought the 255-piece hoard in 1966-67 for around dollars 1.5m.

Last December the president of the museum, William Luers, the director, Philippe de Montebello, and the in-house lawyer, Ashton Hawkins, flew to Istanbul to sort things out. According to the editor of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, Osgen Acar, the Metropolitan team offered three alternative compromises, all of which were turned down. First, he says, they offered a 50-50 split, then one third-two thirds; finally they suggested that the Met should keep 38 of the 225 pieces and return the rest - but even that was not acceptable.

Acar takes a special interest in the Metropolitan's dilemma since he was the investigative journalist who dug up evidence that the Metropolitan's 'Lydian Hoard' was smuggled from Turkey. His investigations were published in Connoisseur magazine, which from 1981 to 1991 was edited by the colourful art historian and former director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Hoving. For Hoving, the murky backwaters of the art trade are an abiding fascination; he has chronicled his own experience of them in a series of autobiographical books which have stirred violent controversy - especially among the Metropolitan curators and trustees he names as supporters throughout his shady dealings.

The Metropolitan's dollars 1m acquisition of a Greek vase decorated by Euphronios was one of the major scandals of Hoving's directorship; the Italians claimed that it had been illegally excavated in Cerveteri and smuggled to America. However, a grand jury finally accepted an alternative account of its origin - that a Beirut dealer had kept the broken fragments of the vase for decades in a shoe box.

From his Metropolitan days, Hoving had inside knowledge of the purchase of the Lydian Hoard - though he likes to emphasise that it was bought and paid for before he arrived at the museum. When two Turkish journalists approached him in the mid-Eighties with the cloak-and-dagger story of how the hoard was found, he leapt at the opportunity of putting the two sides of the saga together.

Melik Kaylen, a young writer of Turkish extraction, brought up in England and America, was already on the magazine's staff; he introduced Hoving to Ozgen Acar, a wily and experienced journalist who was then freelancing in New York. Acar had formerly worked under cover for the Turkish police on drug investigations and was a keen amateur archaeologist.

They set to work on the Lydian Hoard story. There had been four separate illegal excavations, close to the ancient capital of Sardis, the journalists reported. Only one of the excavations had come to the notice of the police; Kaylen and Acar had spoken to the man who first climbed into the tomb, Osman, the local blacksmith. He told them that he had entered the tomb at the sixth hour of the sixth day of the sixth month of 1966 - to which he attributed the bad luck of getting caught. He then described the silver and gold pieces he had handed out to his colleagues, including a silver libation bowl with 18 bearded heads around it 'about the size of my thumb' - which is now at the Met.

The police were alerted by a rival from a neighbouring village and arrived after half the treasure had been removed and hidden; the remaining half was still in the hands of the ringleader, a builder called Durmush, who welcomed them with a volley of shots before escaping into the night. He and his relatives were later caught and sentenced to three months in prison. The captured pieces were put on display in the Anatolian Museum in Ankara and are almost identical to the Metropolitan treasures. The other half of Osman's treasure and the products of the three undisturbed excavations found their way to New York.

The Republic of Turkey served the Metropolitan Museum with a claim for the return of their part of the hoard in May 1987, a few weeks before the Connoisseur article was published. Initially, the legal battle was concentrated on the timing of the claim; the museum pointed to the 'statute of limitations' which requires injured parties to bring an action within three years of the crime. Turkey retorted that they could not bring a claim until they had proof that the Museum owned the hoard; although purchased in 1966-67, none of the pieces had been put on display until 1984.

The law moves very slowly in such cases and it was not until 1990 that the court ruled against the Museum; the judge found that the statute of limitations only began to run at the point when Turkey had asked for the treasure back and been refused. Since then the two sides have been locked in negotiations aimed at avoiding a full trial of the case.

After publishing the Lydian story, the Connoisseur team turned their attention to one of the greatest coin discoveries of the century, a hoard of almost 2,000 silver coins dating from the 5th century BC which was unearthed in Turkey in 1984; it included 14 decadrachms, the largest (an inch and a half wide) and most spectacular of Athenian coins. Before the hoard was found, only 13 of these coins were known to have survived; a single decadrachm has changed hands for as much as dollars 600,000.

In 1984, the hoard was bought for dollars 3.5m by a partnership whose main investor was the Boston millionaire William Koch. One of four brothers who inherited an oil-based conglomerate called Koch Industries, William had battled with his siblings and was bought out in 1983 for a reputed dollars 620m. He has spent his money on various art collections, including Impressionists and Dutch Old Masters - but it has been his lavish spending on racing yachts that made headlines. In 1992, against all the odds, he managed to win the America's Cup.

The Connoisseur team revealed that the coin hoard had been found on a picnic in April 1984. A muhtar, or village head man, from Elmali, on the south coast of Turkey, had given a lift in his car to two treasure hunters, an electrician who had made himself a metal detector and an unemployed friend. They had lunch on the head man's property and afterwards idly tried out the metal detector. It began to howl in the corner of a field; about six inches below the surface they found an earthenware jar, split in half, filled with silver coins.

The two treasure hunters took the coins to Istanbul and sold them to a consortium of Munich dealers - because of the Gastarbeiter, Turkish workers in Germany, Munich has become the most usual stop-off point for antiquities smuggled from Turkey. The coins were seen in Munich by an American classical scholar called Jeffrey Spier and a friend of his, Jonathan Kagan, a merchant banker with Lazard Freres in New York; the pair interested William Koch in buying the hoard as an investment. It was acquired by a company called OKS Partners; the initials stand for Oxbow, a Koch company, Kagan and Spier. Koch put up most of the money while Spier and Kagan published a catalogue of the hoard.

In February 1990 a complaint was served by Turkey on Koch, Kagan and Spier for failure to return the hoard. According to Lawrence Kaye, the New York attorney who acts for the Turkish government in these recovery claims, this is the only case where no negotiations are taking place and the complaint is proceeding to trial.

The two Turkish journalists, Acar and Kaylen, next set out to document the whole Turkish smuggling 'mafia' and the antiquity dealers working out of Munich. After interviewing many of the key figures, and mapping out how different families were interrelated, they found it extremely difficult to tie down specific cases of smuggled art - which rather spoilt the story. They took their problem to Hoving at Connoisseur who came up with an ingenious suggestion. Why not approach the business the other way round - by sending photographs of major antiquities which had recently arrived in America to the Turkish authorities to see if they had any record of them? The exercise proved fruitful; it resulted in two more articles and four more claims by Turkey.

This is where the San Antonio Museum came into the picture with its statue of the Empress Domitia, recently taken on loan from Fuat Uzulmez and Fritz Burki. (The former is an art dealer of Turkish extraction who runs a gallery in Munich, Burki is Swiss, a noted restorer of antiquities.) The main evidence that the Domitia was smuggled included an anonymous telephone call to Turkish customs, a letter with no address on it and the opinion of two Turkish scholars that this type of image was likely to have originated in Turkey. There was also the testimony of two men running a shipping company in Istanbul.

In June 1988 the Turkish customs had opened a crate addressed to a transport company in Munich which should have contained plaster models for dolls. Inside they found a headless marble statue of a woman holding a child, probably representing Pax or Fortuna. The two men who ran the firm of shippers responsible for delivering the crate to the airport were arrested, and one of them received a five-year prison sentence - of which he was only required to serve five months. Two years later, when Turkey was looking for evidence in the San Antonio case, they both signed statements claiming that they had been shown the Domitia in Turkey but had refused to ship it abroad. Their testimony did not add enough to the body of evidence and Lawrence Kaye finally withdrew Turkey's claim on the statue.

The owners, Uzulmez and Burki, had left the case in the able hands of their agent in America, one Robert Hecht. Now 74, Hecht remains one of the most brilliant and active dealers in antiquities worldwide. He supplied the Metropolitan's Euphronios vase which gave Hoving so many sleepless nights in the 1970s. For the sake of his business, he was not prepared to accept that Turkey had any rights under American law.

After successfully fighting off the challenge to the Domitia, he expressed to me his indignation at the way American officials had sided with Turkey, irrespective of the merits of the case. He produced a letter written by the Customs Service in Washington to the local attorney in Austin, Texas, two weeks before the statue was seized. After pointing out that Turkey was on a major narcotics trafficking route, it encouraged the attorney to take action: 'By demonstrating our concern for their cultural artefacts we foster cooperation and find that our effort is often repaid with dividends.'

Robert Hecht was more directly involved in the next Turkish treasure that the Connoisseur journalists ran to earth. It was the sculpted marble leg of a very grand Hellenistic table, which they found on show at Atlantis Antiquities, a New York gallery that he managed for Jonathan Rosen - a millionaire lawyer who is also a keen collector of antiquities. The sculpture depicts a Scythian slave sharpening the knife with which he intends - on Apollo's instructions - to flay Marsyas, who is strung up on a nearby tree.

With the help of police files in Turkey, the journalists managed to trace the farmer whose tractor had run over the sculpture in a field in Philadelphia, Western Turkey, and broken it into three pieces; the farmer turned down a local offer of dollars 1,500 and took the leg to Istanbul where he got dollars 7,000 for it, they reported. The Atlantis Gallery paid dollars 540,000 for it and were asking dollars 850,000, according to Rosen.

When the Turkish government's attorney, Lawrence Kaye, put in a claim for the carving, Rosen found what he describes as 'a creative solution'. In America, when a work of art is donated to a non-profit cultural foundation, the donor can deduct the value of the gift from income tax. Rosen asked Turkey's lawyers to find an appropriate, tax-exempt institution to which he could donate the sculpture. They came up with the American Turkish Society, an organisation founded in 1949 to promote business relations between the two countries and organise cultural events. Rosen took a dollars 650,000 tax deduction and Kaye notched up the gift as a Turkish victory.

The society had never previously owned a work of art and decided that it should be put on permanent loan in an American museum, a decision with which the Turkish government was apparently quite content; Rosen was consulted over where it should go. 'I had to suggest an institution that had no conflict with Turkey,' he told me. 'That ruled out the Metropolitan or Boston. So I suggested Yale or Princeton - they chose Princeton.'

Another tax-exempt gift to the American Turkish Society is chronicled by Thomas Hoving in this month's issue of the American magazine Art and Auction. Hoving left Connoisseur in 1991 - the magazine closed last year - but he has continued to follow Turkey's claims. His article brings us up to date on three disputes.

One of these is over an ornate Roman marble sarcophagus of around AD 150, which the Brooklyn Museum received on loan in 1987 from an American banker, Damon Mezzacappa of Lazard Freres. Kaylen and Acar had traced it back to a dealer in Munich during their 1990 researches but had no evidence of its leaving Turkey. All the same, Lawrence Kaye wrote to Mezzacappa asking for its return.

In 1991 Mezzacappa offered to donate the sarcophagus to the Brooklyn Museum with a valuation of dollars 11m, according to Hoving. He also repeats a possibly apocryphal story which has the curators lifting the heavy marble lid of the sarcophagus and finding recent Turkish newspapers inside, which scared them stiff. According to an official statement, the gift was turned down 'because the museum was unable to determine the object's provenance and its detailed history'. So Mezzacappa donated it to the American Turkish Society instead.

Finally, Hoving provides an insight into the negotiations over the head and shoulders of a Weary Herakles, a Roman marble statue imitating a Greek prototype, c AD 170-192. It belongs to the leading New York collector Leon Levy and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in equal shares. Connoisseur pointed out in 1990 that the bottom half of the statue was in the Antalya Museum in Turkey. Initially, Boston's curator of antiquities, Cornelius Vermeule, jibbed at this, saying that it was a standard image, a copy of a statue by Lysippos of c330 BC, of which many examples existed. The two bits did not necessarily match.

Hoving was instrumental in getting the Antalya museum to make a plaster cast of the top of its Herakles' legs to see if they matched the Levy piece; there was some doubt owing to the undefined edges of the plaster. So the Turks made a second cast of the lower abdomen and legs and sent it to America. It was a perfect fit, according to Hoving. Lawrence Kaye has now claimed the top half and is negotiating with both owners.

The score in these six cases thus runs: two sculptures donated to the American Turkish Society; the Lydian hoard at the Metropolitan and the Herakles in Boston both in the process of negotiations which look likely to result in their return to Turkey; the dispute over ownership of Koch's coin hoard heading for court; and, at the far end of the spectrum, Turkey's claims on the statue of Domitia withdrawn.

On the face of it, it looks as if Turkey has done very well. The two donations, however, are not great victories. The donors have taken a cosy paper profit on their tax deals while avoiding costly litigation. And the treasures are not actually going back to Turkey; they remain on loan to American museums.

The Turks claim that illegally excavated antiquities have been 'stolen' from the state. Theft would be recognised by an American court - but is it really theft? The antiquities, of which the Turkish government had no previous knowledge, only belonged to the state as a result of a law claiming that all ancient artefacts under the earth are government property.

There have been precedents, in the case of pre-Columbian art claimed by South American governments, where American courts have refused to recognise other countries' laws. If either the Metropolitan hoard or the Koch coins become the subject of a trial, everyone will be watching to see if an American judge accepts that they were 'stolen'.

If Turkish laws were changed to ensure fair compensation of those who find the treasures, with export regulations that only restrict the movement of important items, honourable citizens of other countries would have no excuse to flout them. Legalising trade, within rational limits, is the only available means of putting the smugglers out of business.-


Ozgen Acar, editor of the Turkish paper Cumhuriyet, has pointed out that he investigated drug smuggling as a journalist and was not 'working under cover for the Turkish police' as I wrote on 13 June.

(Photographs omitted)