The BM says that the stele entered its collection in 1927, nine years after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and it had been acquired in Syria, not in Turkey. The Turks were unimpressed. “The British Museum has no sense of joint venture,” says Ilber Ortayli, head of the Topkapi. “They were completely unco-operative.”
Shock, not awe
Turkey has many other museums in its sights. A list of artworks being sought abroad indicates the culture ministry has made similar demands of the Louvre, the Pergamon, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, the Davids Samling Museum in Denmark, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Getty. It has also claimed stolen antiquities that have been seized by police in Frankfurt, Florence, Bulgaria, Switzerland and Scotland.
Museum directors have reacted with varying degrees of shock. Some have instructed lawyers; others, such as the V&A, are hoping that a “long-term” loan of the contested object will satisfy the demands from Ankara. (Mr Gunay says only an “indefinite” loan will suffice.) Still more are prevaricating, hoping that the authorities will lose interest. This is unlikely.
Turkey is convinced of the justice of its quest. Moreover the culture ministry lumps together objects that were smuggled out of the country illegally with those that were removed—perhaps legally to a place of greater safety, but not provably so—in an era when ownership was judged in a looser way. For Turkey, all of these objects were stolen. It is determined to get them back.
Mr Gunay’s ministry is beefing up its anti-smuggling and intelligence bureau, and will soon add criminal and legal units to its task force. Easy foreign travel, communication and technology have all helped the restitution campaign. Turkish émigrés and Turks travelling abroad have helped to identify objects in foreign museums. Online museum inventories, with details of acquisition and provenance, are another rich source of information. The ministry is also working with the American group behind WikiLoot, a not-yet-launched effort to use crowd-sourcing to combat the illicit antiquities trade.
Turkish self-justification is as romantic as it is defiant. Asked about the return of the sphinx of Hattusa, which he personally oversaw, Mr Gunay explained that it went to a museum in Corum, “the very homeland of the sphinx”. He added, “I wholeheartedly believe that each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland. Even if these objects are made of stone, just as people have souls, so do animals, plants and monuments. Taking a monument away destabilises the world and is disrespectful to history.”
These arguments are selective. Turkish officials refuse to concede that Turkey itself, over centuries of domination, forcibly removed hundreds of objects from their homelands. Asked whether Alexander’s sarcophagus would be returned to Lebanon, Mr Gunay and his interpreter simply ignore the question. The Turks are too determined to depict themselves as victims of cultural oppression to accept that foreign museums and archaeologists have also played a part in saving their treasures.
The result is an impasse. Foreign museum directors wish to keep ties with Turkish museums, but if all objects from antiquity were to be repatriated to their land of origin, as Mr Gunay suggests, what justification is there for institutions such as the Met, the Louvre and the BM· Why, for example, should the BM retain the Parthenon marbles in London? The carvings were acquired by Lord Elgin when Greece was part of the Ottoman empire. Lord Elgin had obtained a firman, or Ottoman permission from the local authorities, but only after the payment of significant bribes. Does that make acquisitions illegal?
Turkey’s campaign has strong support at home. But counting any object acquired without a distinct contract as stolen should alarm museums everywhere.