Turkish jubilation over recovery of ancient sarcophagus: Smuggled treasure is coming home, writes Hugh Pope from Ankara

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The Independent Online
ISTANBUL - Turkey's new archaeological militancy paid another dividend yesterday as officials unveiled a second ancient treasure returned by US collectors and museums, following anti-smuggling cases launched in American courts.

The Garlanded Sarcophagus will be displayed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum for six months before being sent to a permanent home in Antalya, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast and near the Pamphylian workshops where Roman stonemasons are believed to have produced such works in the 2nd century AD.

A similar marble sarcophagus is already on display at the Antalya museum, sharing the same deep-cut relief, many- breasted female personifications on the corners and sun- like mask-faces embossed on the sides.

Stocky, naked putti hold up the thick garland looped round the sarcophagus, giving the antiquity its name. 'It is the finest garland sarcophagus in the world,' Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum, wrote last year. The Met was the first to return antiquities to Turkey, surrendering to legal pressure and sending back the Lydian Hoard late last year. The latest sarcophagus comes from the Brooklyn Museum, where it had been since 1987.

Under Turkish pressure, its owner Damon Mezzacappa, a principal at Lazard Freres investment bank, tried to donate it quickly to the museum and take a highly profitable tax deduction. The museum nearly accepted. But Thomas Hoving said curators changed their minds quickly when 'the lid of the sarcophagus was removed at one point and inside were a bunch of Turkish newspapers - and not dating to the 2nd century AD either'.

Even that might not have been enough to win its return to Turkey. Crucial to the arrival of the sarcophagus - and other smuggled pieces on their way back from the US - was the discovery of a loophole in US law that would allow donors of art treasures to registered non-profit foundations to deduct the full value from their taxes.

Mr Mezzacappa, for instance, paid the middlemen dollars 1m ( pounds 667,000) for the sarcophagus, according to Turkish investigative journalist Ozgen Acar and sources in the United States. Turkish officials yesterday estimated the true value of the piece at dollars 3.5m. But when Mr Mezzacappa donated it to the New York-based American-Turkish Society, he was able to deduct dollars 11m from his US tax bill. The society then sent off the sarcophagus on 'permanent loan' to Turkey.

Not all museums have immediately given in to Turkish pressure, however. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston still does not accept that the head and shoulders of a superb copy of The Weary Hercules in its galleries was recently smuggled out of Turkey, even though an exactly fitting waist and legs turned up at the same time at an archaeological dig near Antalya.

Mr Acar, whose campaigning journalism for Istanbul's Cumhuriyet newspaper provoked the Turkish action, said the legal actions had made American collectors very cautious when offered Turkish pieces.

But the antiquities saga is probably never-ending, especially in Turkey, where even a trip to the toilets in Istanbul Archaeological Museum involves stepping around statues in crates and stelae stacked along walls right up to the cubicle door.

(Photograph omitted)