Ancient Underground Tomb Discovered in Looting Raid

AP Photo:  Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay

 Authorities in Turkey have discovered an “important archaeological site” while searching for looted antiquities, reports the Associated Press.  The discovery was made near Milas, in western Turkey.  This sarcophagus may have contained artifacts, but they have disappeared, likely lost in the illicit trade.  The piece describes the tunnels:

[T]he suspects had dug two tunnels — 6 and 8 meters (yards) long, from the house and an adjacent barn, leading to the tomb that is buried some 10 meters (yards) deep.
They used sophisticated equipment to drill through the thick marble walls of the tomb and were working to remove the coffin from the underground chamber when they were detained, according to the Culture Ministry.
“I would have wished that this (archaeological find) had been discovered through our digs and not through digs conducted by a band of treasure hunters,” Anatolia quoted Gunay as saying.
“This is not an ordinary treasure hunt. It is very organized and it is obvious that they received economic and scientific help,” Gunay said, adding that Turkey also would investigate the suspects possible overseas links.

  1. Turkey Discovers Ancient Underground Tomb : NPR, , http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129174682 (last visited Aug 13, 2010).
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Turkey Plagued by Illicit Antiquities Trade

An interesting piece this Sunday on the problem of looting of sites in Turkey and the smuggling of objects from war-torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq through Turkey:

According to the “Cultural and Natural Assets Smuggling Report” prepared by the Culture and Tourism Ministry based on figures provided by the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) of the police department, Turkey sees higher statistics related to the smuggling of historical artifacts every year.  In 2003 security authorities seized 3,255 historical artifacts that smugglers were attempting to take abroad. With a steady rise over years, this figure rose to 17,936 in 2007. And another new high came in 2008, when authorities seized 42,073 historical artifacts and detained 4,077 suspects in 1,576 operations.  Coins are the favorite of smugglers as they are relatively easy to take abroad without detection. The number of coins seized by security authorities rose from 20,461 in 2007 to 55,613 in 2008. . . .


The report also maintains that conflicts and wars tend to create a suitable atmosphere for the smuggling of historical artifacts, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the ongoing wars allow smugglers to operate freely. The majority of historical artifacts smuggled out of these countries are sent to Western countries via Turkey. This route of smuggling implies that these historical artifacts are purchased by collectors in rich Western countries. The US, the UK, Switzerland and Japan are the favorite destinations for these items.  The report cites lack of sufficient security measures against theft in museums as the major reason for the high number of smuggling cases. Tourism is the most widely used venue for smuggling historical artifacts.Furthermore, Turkey lacks a sufficient and clear inventory of historical artifacts in the country, and Turkey does not have statistics about existing historical artifacts and about already smuggled items.

Ercan Yavuz, Turkey a magnet for smugglers of historical artifact [Today’s Zaman, Sep.  27, 2009]

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9 Arrested on Cyprus

Today’s Cyprus Mail reports on the arrest of 9 individuals attempting to smuggle a Syrian Orthodox bible from Turkey to the island for sale:

A TWO THOUSAND year-old Syrian Orthodox bible, believed to have been smuggled into the island from southeastern Turkey, has become the subject of major police operation in the north that has so far led to the arrest of nine suspects.

The bible, estimated to be worth around €2 million, was seized during a raid at the Famagusta bus terminal last Friday where smugglers were seeking to sell it to buyers in the north. It is thought Turkish Cypriot police had been tipped off about the impending sale.

Although the north’s ‘antiquities department’ refused yesterday to comment on the bible, because it was “the subject of an ongoing inquiry”, a statement from police said it was bound in deerskin, written in gold letters in the Syriac language, and believed to be around 2000 years old. The bible may have come from the heartland of the Syrian Orthodox community in southeastern Turkey, where a small community remains, despite often being caught in the crossfire between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish military.

“It is very likely to come from the Tur-Abdin area of Turkey, where there is still a Syriac speaking community,” Dr [Charlotte Roueche], professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King College, London told Reuters yesterday.
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Iznik Tiles Returned

From the Art Newspaper, two Iznik tile panels stolen from an imperial Ottoman tomb from the New Mosque in Istanbul were offered for sale at Sotheby’s earlier this year; but are slated for a return to Istanbul sometime this month. Pictured here are other tiles from the new mosque. The stolen tiles had been slated for an April 13th sale, and were described as 16th century originating from Turkey or Syria.

No provenance was given and their estimate was £15,000 to £25,000 ($30,000-$50,000). Soon after the catalogue was published, the auction house was
informed by the Turkish authorities that the panels were among a large number of tiles which are said to have been stolen from the Hunkar Kiosk in the mosque on 20 January 2003. In a statement to the Turkish press, the head of Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations, Yusuf Beyazit, said that other tiles stolen from the mosque had been discovered near the coast of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. He said that the Sotheby’s panels accounted for the rest of the missing tiles and would be returned to the mosque where closed-circuit cameras were now being installed. Mr Beyazit said that the directorate’s new Anti-Smuggling Bureau had recovered the tiles in close co-operation with Scotland Yard and Interpol.

If the consignor has lost the tiles, she should now have a claim against the intermediate seller. Such suits are relatively rare though. That is seldom the case unfortunately. Importantly, though these tiles were certainly stolen, why no criminal charges? Well, because the Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 makes it nearly impossible to do so. A defendant must have been aware of an object’s “tainted” status under the offence, which will be impossible to do in nearly every case; especially considering the flawed way the market operates.
In this case, though the art loss register was checked, Turkey had not registered this theft. The reasons for that are unclear. I know there is something like a $100 dollar charge to search the database in some cases, but I’m not sure if there is a charge to include objects in the database. But the market cannot continue to just rely on these limited databases. These objects came from somewhere. Merely stating “Turkey or Syria” as the nation of origin is not sufficient; beautiful tiles like this don’t just go missing. We had a chance to visit a number of Mosques back in April, but not the new mosque. To my untrained eye, these tiles really are stunningly beautiful.
Ultimately, if there is going to be a viable licit art market, buyers and auction houses must do a much better job of determining where objects have come from.
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New Seizures


David Nishimura picked up on a couple of major seizures last week in Paris and Moscow which indicate the illicit trade in antiquities is still going strong.

First, the BBC reports that in Paris over 650 Malian objects were seized at the Charle de Gaulle airport (see picture from BBC). The artifacts included axe heads, flintstones, and rings. Most of the objects dated from a couple thousand BC, however some may have been over 200,000 years old. These objects should soon be returned to Mali, however the archaeological context surrounding them is of course lost. There is no word on what may have alerted the French authorities to this shipment. It seems there were “[looking] out for artefacts being exported from specific countries such as Mali”.

A similar story from from Moscow: MosNews reported last week that Russia’s “cultural watchdog” agency had seized Byzantine-era items from Turkey. Some of the objects appear to have been taken from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara back in 1963.

Both shipments were seemingly on their way to American dealers and collectors.

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