Reuniting the Sidamara Sarcophagus

A fragment of the Sidamara Sarcophagus; the head resides at the V&A, the Sarcophagus in Istanbul
A fragment of the Sidamara Sarcophagus; the head resides at the V&A, the Sarcophagus in Istanbul

In 1882 Sir C.W. Wilson, Britain’s consul-general in Anatolia did what many British diplomats did in the 19th century when visiting the classical world. He took pieces of it back with him to London. In this case this small infant’s head which was removed from what is know known as the Sidamara Sarcophagus. Wilson hacked off the head, and reburied the Sarcophagus hoping to return for the whole thing later. He was never able to return, and the sarcophagus was ‘rediscovered’ in 1898 (can anyone tell me by whom?). I remember seeing this small head at the V&A some years ago, and it always struck be then, without knowing th efull story, that it was incredibly odd to have just a small little head on display.



The Sidamara sarcophagus 3d C. AD; now in display in Istanbul
The Sidamara sarcophagus 3d C. AD; now in display in Istanbul

The sarcophagus now is on display at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. Though the head is in the collection of the V&A Museum in London. Turkey has renewed calls for its return. But the V&A has resisted these calls for return. Why? The value of the small head—aesthetic, cultural, historical, or otherwise of this little head would seem to be limited. Instead as Martin Bailey reports for the Art Newspaper, the V&A is concerned about what appear to be some easy legal hurdles to overcome, and even the precedent that would emerge for other pieces of marble in British collections:

In 1883, Wilson wrote to the V&A’s director: “I am trying to secure the [whole] sarcophagus for England and should wish the head eventually to go to whomever secures the sarcophagus.” In the meantime, he offered the head on loan. His daughter converted the loan into a donation in 1932.

In 1934, the museum considered returning the head to Turkey. Aziz Bey, the head of antiquities in Istanbul, offered, “in exchange, an object of the same value”. The V&A director, Eric Maclagan, then wrote to the UK Board of Education asking permission to deaccession and suggesting that the Turks should be asked for a Byzantine carved marble sculpture.

In a minute dated 20 April 1934, Maclagan recorded that the return would “raise the difficulty of possible repercussions, particularly with regard to the Elgin Marbles [at the British Museum], but I think we could justify ourselves by pointing out that this is a question of a single head missing from a large monument, of much more value if replaced than if exhibited by itself.” The Board of Education and the Treasury then agreed to the V&A returning the head. There the correspondence in the file abruptly ends – and it remains unclear why the proposed exchange never took place.

The legal hurdles are seemingly mundane. Perhaps Turkey needs to reform its laws so as to allow for easier short-term loans of material to take advantage of the Italian approach to repatriation (i.e. returns of loud and notorious objects in exchange for short term loans of other material). But on another level this seems terribly unfair for Turkey. The just thing to do would be to reuinite the head with the rest of this object. Yet Turkey is meant to somehow argue for return of hacked off art generally, while the V&A can justify its continued possession on a tenuous property interest which the late Sir Wilson acquired by chipping off a hunk. Doesn’t justice dictate a different result here?

  1. Turkey renews claim for long lost head, The Art Newspaper,


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