Tag Archives: repatriation

Decoding Eakin: Behind ‘Extortion’ Claim, Fear the Floodgates Have Opened

imgresIt is no coincidence that The Great Giveback, Hugh Eakin’s lengthy argument against the repatriation of looted antiquities, landed in The New York Times on Sunday, just as the directors of America’s leading art museums gathered in Kansas City for their annual meeting.

A key item on the agenda in Kansas City that day was the museum community’s handling of looted antiquities, an issue that has roiled the art world for more than a decade.  The Assoc. of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has repeatedly tried to put the issue to rest, adopting policy changes in 2001, in 2004 and again in 2006 as the controversy metastasized into a full bore international scandal. In 2008 the AAMD revisited the issue yet again, adopting acquisition guidelines that required a clear ownership history dating back to 1970, a position that put them in line with most archaeologists.

The 2008 policy was heralded as a turning point for the American museums and a victory for reformers like the Getty’s Michael Brand and Max Anderson, now in Dallas, who felt it was time for American museums to sever their ties to the black market. But those reforms are under attack. Museum directors are seeking to reverse the policy, which drives a wedge between them and wealthy patrons whose antiquities collections can no longer be donated in exchange for tax write-offs. These dissidents have made ample use of the policy’s major loophole, which allowed museums to violate the 1970 rule if they posted the acquisitions on the group’s Object Registry with a justification of why.

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As Lee Rosenbaum recently noted, sixteen museums have posted nearly 600 objects there, many with no clear justification for flouting the 1970 rule. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, for example, acquired an unprovenanced collection of 31 pieces of ancient gold jewelry, saying it violated the 1970 rule so the objects could be “studied, displayed and publicized.” Last August, the Cleveland Museum posted a Roman portrait bust of Drusus (right) that has no documented ownership history prior to 2004 and was sold to the museum by the Aboutaam brothers, antiquities dealers who have been convicted of charges related to trafficking in looted art. “Museums should still be buying antiquities, and we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility, and I think it’s almost an ethical responsibility,” Cleveland museum director David Franklin told the New York Times. (Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recognize the quote as a nearly verbatim echo of what the Getty’s John Walsh said in 1987 to justify the acquisition of the looted statue of Aphrodite.)

In short, the Object Registry has become a tool for laundering suspect antiquities. Once objects are posted there, museum officials believe, the statute of limitations clock starts ticking, giving foreign governments just a few years to investigate, build a case and file a claim before their time expires and the objects emerge sparkling and clean. More broadly, the series of reforms taken by many American museums in recent years — which include taking claims seriously and sending looted antiquities back to the countries from which they were stolen — are under attack from within.

That brewing fight is the context for Eakin’s polemic, which notably takes aim not at source countries so much as museums like the Getty and Dallas that have embraced reforms and begun to proactively search their collections for problematic objects. With Philippe de Montebello retired and Jim Cuno forced to moderate his view by the Getty board, Eakin has emerged as the spokesman for the dissidents.

Recent events have only raised the stakes, for the controversy over looted antiquities shows no signs of going away. The depth of the problem with American collections of Classical antiquities is just beginning to emerge, with more revelations certain to come as researchers comb through the seized archives of the illicit trade’s most prominent middlemen. Meanwhile, over the past year the search for loot in American collections has gone global, with countries like Cambodia, India and Turkey bringing claims. Museum directors know better than anyone that these claims are the tip of a very large iceberg.  

To the ears of some in the art world, that sound is the creaking of the floodgates swinging open.  

Spurious Claims

Eakin’s piece, then, is best understood as part of a broader effort to convince the public that claims involving looted antiquities are baseless and those who cave in to them, cowards. The reforms have not only failed to stop looting (a “scourge” often given lip service by museums, but never more.) They have “spurred a raft of extravagant new claims against museums — backed by menacing legal threats.” Unless American museums grow a backbone and fight these foreign claims to the death in court, Eakin suggests, someday soon they will be empty of ancient art.

As he has done in the past, Eakin relies on a mosaic of selective facts and careful omissions to cobble together his argument. Many of its most serious flaws have already been rebutted. Lee Rosenbaum — who herself is often skeptical of repatriation claims — denounced it as a “distorted, often mistaken opinion piece” and concluded Eakin was “an extremist on the anti-giveback side.” Archaeologist Paul Barford was less kind, saying the piece “illustrates quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples’ cultural property, that internationally is losing America friends.” Cultural property lawyer Rick St. Hilaire noted that Eakin’s argument “overlooks the general principle that stolen property cannot be owned lawfully or that contraband antiquities (smuggled antiquities) are somehow legitimate.” Speaking in Eakin’s favor, I could only find three voices: Peter Tompa, the lobbyist for collecting interests; blogger Judith Dobrzynski, who calls the piece “pitch-perfect” but acknowledged a conflict of interest in the subject; and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, who celebrated the piece’s “nuance” in a tweet.

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Let me focus on something I think Eakin gets almost right — his summary of recent events. (See below for his major omission.) Other archaeologically rich nations have been inspired by Italy’s success. In bringing their own claims, many have been less disciplined than Italy, which supported its demands with evidence — much of it photographic — gathered during a decade-long criminal investigation. But here Eakin misses an opportunity to articulate the key flaw of some recent repatriation requests — the conflation of historical gripes with the modern criminal behavior of looting, smuggling and fencing. For example, most of the objects Turkey is demanding from American museums were acquired since the 1960s and have no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they are likely the product of illicit excavations. Whether Turkey has evidence to support those claims remains to be seen — unlike Italy, the Turks are making their case to museums before sharing it with the public. But Turkey has also asked several European museums to return objects that were removed nearly a century ago, sometimes by archaeologists operating with government permission. And to increase their leverage, Turkey has denied digging permits to foreign archaeologists who played no role in the alleged wrongdoing. All of this — coupled with Turkey’s own history of plunder — has led to a skeptical reception of claims against American museums that may or may not be backed by clear evidence. And with good reason.

Likewise, Greece and Egypt have frequently included colonial-era claims with requests for the return of recently looted antiquities. Some of those historical claims may carry ethical weight, such as the reunification of the Parthenon marbles. But more often they blur the moral and legal clarity of claims involving modern looting. The same can be said for occasional statements that all things made in Country X should be returned to County X, which discredit the nations that make them.

So, there is legitimate reason for skepticism of repatriation claims. But these are not the arguments Eakin chose to make. Instead, he invents a picture of “terrified” museums being cowed by powerful foreign governments into giving back America’s innocently-acquired art. This description of the situation makes for an almost laughable reversal of reality.

American museums have long had the power when it comes to claims of restitution — the power to ignore claims, to withhold information and to create or defend false ownership histories. For decades, they have wielded this power freely, dismissing polite requests from foreign countries while continuing to buy looted art with impunity. For years, the Getty blew off Italian objections to their acquisitions of obviously looted art by simply refusing to respond to inquiries from senior government officials. The Met refused to allow scholars to look at its collection of looted Greek silver. Turkey has requested the return of the Sion Treasure from Harvard since the 1960s to no avail, while the university published a book about the treasure that detailed its illegal excavation and included a photo of the looter’s hole from which it was taken. Yet Eakin laments that today, 40 years later, Turkey has decided to begin withholding loans from Harvard until it responds. These are what he calls “blatantly extortionary demands.”

What motivates repatriation claims from source countries is not a desire for a few more pieces of ancient art. The basements of their museums overflow with the stuff. What they want is respect.

Let’s consider Eakin’s innocent acquisitions. If there has been a lesson from the last decade of controversy — and if there is one point made clearly in Chasing Aphrodite — it is that American museum officials were far from innocents. In case after case where internal museum records have come to light — via lawsuits or leaks to reporters — there is clear evidence that museums officials were aware they were buying recently looted antiquities. Met officials knew the Lydian Hoarde was looted and sought to hide it, as Turkey learned during its six year legal battle for their return. Dietrich von Bothmer kept a map of the precise tomb in Cerveteri from which the Euphronios krater had been looted, as we learned from Marion True’s sworn deposition. The Boston MFA’s longtime antiquities curator Cornelius Vermeule was close personal friends with Robert Hecht and acquired hundreds of looted objects from him, as the Italian investigation and Hecht’s own journal revealed.  

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

Giacomo Medici during a visit to the Getty Museum

The Getty case, our most revealing window into a museum’s antiquities acquisition process, is startlingly clear: “We know it’s stolen,” Harold Williams said in a confidential 1987 meeting about the acquisition of suspect antiquities. “Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?” Marion True discussed the contents of looted tombs in correspondence with Giacamo Medici, and declared the golden funerary wreath “too dangerous” before greed got the better of her. Her predecessor Arthur Houghton visited Medici’s Swiss warehouse and sought his help tracing the Getty’s griffins to tombs in Southern Italy. Houghton’s predecessor Jiri Frel ran a provenance forgery workshop out of the antiquities department and acquired thousands of looted objects through a tax fraud scheme whose scope is just now becoming apparent.

In other words, the evidence amassed to date makes abundantly clear that many of our highly educated antiquities curators and museum directors were not total dupes when it came to their role in the illicit antiquities trade.

They knew.

This is Eakin’s most glaring omission and the reason why repatriation is — at times — a reasonable response to foreign claims. They are the pound of flesh that must be paid for our collective cultural sins.

What standard?

How much evidence is needed to establish that an object is the product of the illicit antiquities trade and should be returned to the country from which it was stolen? For all the debate about acquisition policies, there has been nearly no debate or policy papers on this question, which is far more pressing concern facing museums today.

Eakin reminds us repeatedly that museums have returned contested antiquities under no legal order and often with no knowledge of their precise findspots. Such statements remind me of a phone conversation I had in 2006 with the Met’s de Montebello. He told me that the Met was prepared to give up its beloved Euphronios krater if Italy could present “irrefutable proof” of the precise spot from which it had been looted. Soon after, the Met’s general counsel informed him that there was no such legal standard — not even in cases of capital murder. Montebello left it to a spokesman to call back and sheepishly clarify that under the law, the vase could be seized by US law enforcement based upon probable cause. That is the legal standard for civil forfeitures. Apparently Eakin did not get the memo.

Orpheus mosaic in situThe cases that Eakin suggests are spurious are still being negotiated, and we don’t yet have access to the full array of evidence. But what has come to light suggests they are far from fickle. In the case of Cambodia’s claim on the Khmer statue in the Norton Simon, the precise find-spot is well-known and not disputed — the statue’s feet remain in placed today at the temple complex from which it was looted. In the two cases where claims from Turkey have been resolved — Dallas and Penn — there was compelling evidence. Penn acquired the Trojan gold  in 1966 from Hecht, whose ties to Turkish looters are well documented, and scientific tests later found it was consistent with samples found in Turkey. In the case of the Orpheus mosaic, investigators found Polaroids of the mosaic in situ when it arrested the alleged looters.

Eakin’s call to legal arms betrays both his ignorance of the law and of museums’ dilemma. There is a very good reason why museums have voluntarily given back nearly $1 billion in looted antiquities with no legal fight — it was in their self-interest. As cultural property attorney Rick St. Hilaire notes, taking these cases to court “is fraught with danger.”

LACMA's Michael Govan

Museums hoping to fight in court had better make sure they have no damaging internal records detailing their acquisition of looted antiquities, for those are likely to come out in discovery, as Sotheby’s recent learned. They had better also be sure that no other objects in their collections have dubious origins, because their legal fight will inspire a thorough examination of their entire collection. This was the lesson learned by the Getty, which, as Eakin notes, chose to fight rather than accept the voluntary return of six clearly looted antiquities. Several years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, they ended up returning more than 40.

Eakin laments the cost to museums of dealing with repatriation claims. The cost of litigation is far far higher. This is not to mention the public relations consequences, which concern museums far more than a few pieces of ancient art. The true and lasting damage to American institutions over this past decade has not been legal fees or lost antiquities. It has been the growing public perception that they are engaged in an illegal activity that, at its heart, is a deep betrayal of their public mission. If they follow Eakin’s advice, they will double down on that betrayal.

Greek deal

The enlightened solution that Eakin seeks is the one being taken by the institutions he targets — rebuilding trust with the public and foreign governments by taking claims seriously, engaging in proactive research of their collections and sober evaluation of the evidence and when appropriate, returning a token of the stolen property in their collections in exchange for a collaborative relationship with a potential adversary.

As Eakin well knows, this approach is not “making great art ever less available.” It is providing museum visitors with remarkable rotating exhibits of the world’s great treasures while moving both source countries and museums toward a future where questions of ownership recede and the focus becomes cooperation and education. 

Dallas Museum of Art Returns Orpheus Mosaic, Five Other Looted Treasures in Announcing New Art Loans Initiative

Orpheus Mosaic

The Dallas Museum of Art has agreed to return six looted antiquities from its collection and announced a broad new initiative to exchange expertise and artwork with cultural institutions around the world.

“The problems of illegal excavation and the illicit import of cultural property require the consideration of new models of cooperation among institutions,” the museum said in a release announcing the initiative, dubbed the Dallas Museum of Art Exchange Program, or DMX.

The effort was announced Monday while signing an agreement with Turkey, the museum’s first partner, for the return of the Orpheus Mosaic, a Roman mosaic floor looted near Edessa (today’s Sanliurfa) and acquired at a Christies auction by the DMA in 1999.

Microsoft Word - Orpheus mosaic in situ.docxIn explaining the return, the museum cited compelling new evidence presented by Turkish investigators about the mosaic’s illicit origins: “Two newly recovered in situ photos of the mosaic showing it being removed by the smugglers. The photographs also show the full work with its decorative borders intact, prior to it being removed from the ground. The photographs were printed by a local photo shop in Sanliurfa and are currently evidence in a criminal investigation being carried out by the Sanliurfa Head Prosecutor in order to identify everyone involved in the crime.” The image shows the mosaic with a border that was likely removed by looters, the museum notes, adding, ” The canister visible in the lower right contains a Turkish brand of glue, which looters–not archaeologists–would have used to make repairs.”

Notably, the Dallas museum initiated the return of the mosaic instead of waiting for it to be identified by Turkish authorities, who have been on a campaign to repatriate looted antiquities. Soon after Maxwell Anderson started as director in January, he asked the museum’s antiquities curators to identify objects with troubling ownership histories. The mosaic was found to be nearly identical to several published on a website of Turkey of looted objects. Anderson told the Dallas Morning News:

the last thing he wanted was “to be the recipient of a claim by Turkey and be unprepared, seeing all of that evidence. So, I wrote to the embassy, saying if you have any information about this mosaic, please let us know. I didn’t have any specific information, but it seemed circumstantially that it was very likely that it was removed from that site.” Turkish officials came forward with the photograph of the mosaic, “which is all you need to know,” Anderson said.

In addition to the Orpheus mosaic, the Dallas museum agreed to return five antiquities to Italy in response to law enforcement requests. All five  Two of those objects were first questioned by us in a Jan. 11 email to the museum inquiring about links between the DMA and the illicit trade, including antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia. After our inquiry, the DMA contacted Italy and has now agreed to return them.

UPDATE: In February, we requested provenance information for 15 of the DMA’s recent acquisitions, including the five pieces returned this week, that we selected at random. They helpfully provided the list we posted here. We asked yesterday on Twitter whether other objects on that list might also be returned — several come from dealers who have also been implicated in the illicit trade. A museum spokeswoman now tells us: “Italian and Greek authorities have reviewed  our collections records, including the works you refer to in your recent post, and have advanced no other claims.” Of course, some of the material on the list, such as the Cycladic figurine, likely came from other countries.

The objects going back to Italy — and the DMA’s explanation for their return — offer a helpful who’s who of the illicit antiquities trade.

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Two Etruscan shields with the head of Acheloos (Etruscan 6th Century BC)

Volute Krater (Pulian, 4th Century BC). 

As we noted in February, both were purchased from  antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagià in 1998.  The museum describes Almagià as “a former New York antiquities dealer…currently named in a criminal case for conspiracy to commit the illegal export and smuggling of cultural property pending before the Public Prosecutor of Rome. Almagià has been under investigation since at least 2006, when U.S. Customs officials raided his New York apartment, confiscating photographs, documents, and archaeological material. He was also the subject of a New York Times story in 2010 that revealed he and Michael Padgett, former antiquities curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, were the focus of an investigation of the illegal export and laundering of Italian archaeological objects. The Italian government named Almagià in the criminal case for having ‘sold, donated, or lent’ nearly two dozen works looted from Italian sites to the Princeton Museum. Roughly twenty other objects are listed in the case as having been obtained illegally by Almagià and sold to other American institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, including this pair of shields.” UPDATE: The DMA incorrectly referred to Padgett as the former antiquities curator at Princeton. The Princeton Museum confirms he remains on staff there, and the DMA has corrected is post.

dma_507363As evidence that the statue and krater were looted, the museum cited “photographs provided that were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials” and “archival evidence seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, including records of sales and correspondence currently serving as evidence in the criminal investigation and court case.”

Dallas now joins the Met and Princeton in returning objects linked to the dealer. (We’ve written about those returns here and here.) Will the other museums we’ve identified with Almagia material — including the Getty, the Boston MFA, San Antonio Museum of Art, Indiana University — now be motivated to do the same?

dma_507366A Red Figure krater (Apulia, 4th Century BC) acquired by DMA at Sotheby’s in 1996.

A Calxy Krater (Campagnia, 4th Century BC) acquired from the vases form Ward and Co. around 2005, said to be from a “Swiss private collection.” 

Both vases have been linked to Gianfranco Becchina, who the museum describes as “a Sicilian antiquities dealer who has been convicted in Italy of dealing in stolen antiquities. Becchina started dealing in antiquities from his premises in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1970s and is said to have sold to several major museums, sometimes through Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London. In May 2002, the Carabinieri, in collaboration with the Swiss police, raided his storage facilities in Basel, recovering thousands of objects in various stages of restorations, photographs of artifacts, and other documents.”

dma_507370“The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art have both returned material to Italy that was acquired from Becchina and subsequently shown to have been illegally exported.”

“In April 2012 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized two works from Christie’s New York auction house that were associated with the investigation of Becchina. According to the Carabinieri, Gianfranco Becchina has been identified as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage, and all property that has been shown to have been illicitly trafficked by Becchina is subject to confiscation.”

You can find a list of our previous posts mentioning Becchina here.

dma_507364Etruscan head of an Antefix. Said to be from Henri Jacques of Geneva. Purchased from Robin Symes in about 1999.

A photograph linked this antefix to Giacomo Medici, who the museum describes as “a former antiquities dealer based in Rome, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland, who was found guilty of receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic by the Italian government and sentenced to ten years in prison and a €10 million fine. In 1995 the Carabinieri, in concert with Swiss police, raided Medici’s storage space in Geneva, which contained thousands of objects, photographs (including many Polaroids), and documents relating to his business practices and connections. The Cleveland Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art have all returned objects that were acquired via Giacomo Medici. Along with Gianfranco Becchina, he has been identified by the Carabinieri as one of the most prolific known traffickers of Italian cultural heritage.”

Robin Symes, the dealer form whom the DMA purchased the objects, has also been linked to the illicit trade, the museum notes. “Symes is also accused of playing a pivotal role in the illegal trade of looted antiquities. Several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, have already returned several objects acquired through Symes. He is known to have commercial relations with dealer Giacomo Medici, who was the ultimate source of the artifacts that would subsequently be sold through dealers or auction houses. Prior to the Medici conviction, Robin Symes had been involved in a civil court case, and in January 2005 he was sentenced to two years in prison for contempt of court for not fully disclosing his assets.”

You can find our other posts mentioning Symes here.

We’ll have more on the significance of the returns and the DMA’s new loans initiative in a future post.

The Getty List: 10 Objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum that Turkey Says Were Looted

Among the dozens of allegedly looted antiquities that the government of Turkey is asking American museums to return are ten objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD. From Cremna, Turkey. Purchased in 1994 for $550,000 from Varya and Hans Cohn, Los Angeles. The Cohn’s acquired the object from Elie Borowsky (Basel) in ’68. (JPGM 94.AA.22)

The Getty declined to provide a list of the objects in question, as did the Met, the Cleveland Museum and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. We obtained a list from Turkish authorities and asked the Getty to provide the collecting history for those objects.

Unlike those other museums, the Getty is obligated by its 2006 acquisition policy to provide the public with provenance information about objects in the collection. Thanks to that policy, we now know something about how the contested objects came to the Getty.

The most prominent are four marble Muses now on display in the Getty Villa’s Basilica Room. All four appear to come from Cremna, Turkey and were first acquired by antiquities dealer Elie Borowski sometime before 1968, the Getty records show.

Borowski, who died in 2003, had ties to the illicit antiquities trade. His name appears in Robert Hecht’s memoir as a client of convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici; it also appears on a handwritten organization chart of the illicit trade seized by Italian authorities in 2001. Former Getty antiquities curator Marion True told Italian authorities that Borowski had also been a client of Gianfranco Becchina, the Sicilian antiquities dealer (also named on the org chart) who is on trial in Italy.

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD. From Asia Minor. Purchased for $10,137 from Elie Borowsky in ’71; Borowsky already owned in 1968 (JPGM 71.AA.461)

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD, from Cremna, Turkey. Purchased for $9,185 in 1968 from Sotheby’s London, November 26, 1968. lot no. 173. (JPGM 68.AA.21)

Statue of a Muse, 200 AD, from Cremna, Turkey. Purchased in 1968 for $13,122 at Sotheby’s London, November 26, 1968. lot no. 173. (JPGM 68.AA.22)


Several other Getty objects sought by Turkey came through another dealer connected to the illicit trade: Nicolas Koutoulakis, now deceased owner of the Paris gallery Segredakis. Koutoulaksi also appears in the org chart and last September, the Getty returned to Greece fragments of a grave stone it had acquired from Koutoulakis after scholars concluded they adjoined an object now in a Greek museum.

Portrait of a Man. (73.AB.8) Purchased in 1973 for  $125,326  from Nicolas Koutoulakis

Bronze bust. (71.AB.458) Purchased in 1971 for $90,000 from Nicolas Koutoulakis.

Bronze foot from “Bubon, Turkey, Asia” (72.AB.103) acquired from Nicolas Koutoulakis. (See the Cleveland bronze from Bubon here.)

Bronze bed (82.AC.94) purchased for $150,000 from Nicolas Koutoulakis; Koutoulakis purchased from Gilette’s estate; Joseph Gilette of Lausanne, ca 1936.

The final two Getty objects come from a private dealer and an auction house:

Roman Eagle (72.AB.151) purchased in 1972 for $200,000 from French & Company.

Bronze bust of Lucius Veres  (73.AB.100) purchased in 1973 for $37,701 from Spink & Son, London.

When asked for comment about Turkey’s request, Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig said, “We are in dialogue with officials from the Turkish Ministry of Culture regarding some objects in our collection. We expect those discussions to continue and while they do, we will not be getting into specifics.”

Scoop: Turkey asks Getty, Met, Cleveland and Dumbarton Oaks to Return Dozens of Antiquities

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason reports on Turkey’s bid to repatriate dozens of allegedly looted antiquities in American museums.

The requests include 10 objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum; 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 21 objects at the Cleveland Musuem of Art; and the Sion Treasure at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks.

Below we’ve provided the complete article. In the coming days, we’ll be providing additional details on the objects sought at each of the museums.

Turkey asks U.S. museums for return of antiquities

The Getty and the New York Met are among the U.S. institutions the Turkish government has contacted over artifacts it believes were smuggled out of the country.

By Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times

8:48 PM PDT, March 30, 2012The government of Turkey is asking American museums to return dozens of artifacts that were allegedly looted from the country’s archaeological sites, opening a new front in the search for antiquities smuggled out of their original countries through an illicit trade.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Cleveland Museum of Art and Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection are among the institutions that the Turkish government has contacted, officials say.

Turkey believes the antiquities were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country after the passage of a 1906 law that gave the state ownership of antiquities in the ground.

Inspired by the success of its Mediterranean neighbors Italy and Greece, Turkey is taking a more aggressive stance toward its claims, many of which were first made decades ago.

“Turkey is not trying to start a fight,” said Murat Suslu, Turkey’s director general for cultural heritage and museums. “We are trying to develop … cooperation and we hope these museums will also understand our point of view.”

Turkey is presenting the museums with supporting evidence and has threatened to halt all loans of art to those institutions until they respond to the claims. Loans have already been denied to the Met, a Turkish official said.

American museums’ antiquities collections have been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years as evidence emerged of their ties to an illicit trade in artifacts found in archaeological sites around the world.

Confronted with that evidence, the Getty, the Met, the Cleveland, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Princeton University Art Museum returned more than 100 looted objects to Italy and Greece, changed their acquisition policies and formed collaboration agreements that allow for loans to replace acquisitions of suspect material.

But new evidence continues to emerge, underscoring that the scope of the problem is far wider. In January, Italy announced that it had recovered an additional 200 objects and fragments from the Met and Princeton after they were tied to an ongoing criminal investigation of Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia and Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett.

None of the museums facing requests from Turkey would release a list of the contested objects in their collections, but The Times obtained a partial list from Turkish officials of what the country is asking for. Judging from publicly available records, most of the objects were acquired by the museums since the 1960s and have little or no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they could have come from illicit excavations.

Statue of a Muse. From Cremna, Turkey, circa 200 AD. (JPGM 94.AA.22)

The 10 Getty objects sought by Turkey were acquired from dealers, auction houses or collectors for more than $1 million between 1968 and 1994 and include four marble muses now on display in the Getty Villa’s Basilica gallery. According to ownership histories provided by the Getty in accordance with its reformed antiquities policy, several originated with Elie Borowski or Nicolas Koutoulakis, two antiquities dealers known to have ties to the illicit trade.

The Getty’s talks with Turkey began in the 1990s, government officials said, and gained steam under the directorship of interim museum director David Bomford, who left the Getty in February.

“We expect those discussions to continue and while they do, we will not be getting into specifics,” said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

The 18 contested objects at the Met are all from the private collection of Norbert Schimmel, a longtime Met trustee who died in 1990. The museum acquired the Schimmel collection in 1989, and several of the contested objects are now highlights of the museum’s Ancient Near East Galleries.

A Hittite gold pendant of a goddess with a child, circa 1400 BCE from Central Anatolia. (MMA 1989.281.12)

Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met, initially denied the museum had received a request for specific objects. He later acknowledged in a statement that Turkey had requested information about the 18 objects in September, adding that the museum is “in the process of providing” that information. Turkish officials say the Met’s only response has been to write a letter to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

At Dumbarton Oaks inWashington, D.C., ancient silver plates and other decorative objects known as the Sion Treasure are among the items Turkey is seeking to recover. The treasure was reportedly found in the early 1960s in an ancient burial mound in Kumluca, Turkey. It was acquired by the museum in 1966 from a private collector who bought them that same year from George Zakos, an antiquities dealer with documented ties to the illicit trade.

Paten with Cross, from the Sion Treasure. (BZ.1963.36.3)

Turkey has been asking for the return of the treasure since 1968, hoping to reunite the objects with the rest of the treasure, which is in a museum in Antalya, on Turkey’s southwest coast.

Twenty-one objects are being sought from the Cleveland Museum, which Turkish officials say has not responded to their inquiries. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment or release a list of contested objects.

Turkey has long sought the return of objects taken illegally from its borders, with occasional success.

Most famously, the country’s government fought a six-year legal battle with the Met for the return of the Lydian Hoard, a collection of goods looted from a burial mound in western Turkey. (It, too, had passed through the hands of Zakos.) The Met agreed to return the objects in 1993 after evidence emerged that museum officials had been aware of the material’s illicit origins and sought to hide it. To the chagrin of Turkish authorities, soon after its return a key piece of the treasure was stolen from the local museum to which it was returned.

CMA 1942.204

A similar battle played out between Turkey and the Boston MFA over the Roman statue Weary Herakles. Turkey requested the statue’s return in the 1990s after finding its bottom half in an excavation in Perge. The MFA had purchased the top half in 1981 jointly with New York collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White. The MFA’s piece has been known to fit the bottom half in Turkey since 1992, but the museum only returned it last September as part of a broader cultural cooperation agreement.

In hopes of avoiding such protracted disputes, Turkey adopted a more aggressive stance in 2010, barring loans to institutions harboring contested objects. The Art Newspaper reported earlier this month that two British museums have recently been denied loans.

“It’s part of a broader shift in the government saying, ‘culture matters to us,’” said Christina Luke, a lecturer in archaeology at Boston University. While working in Turkey over the last decade, Luke has seen Turkey make major investments in regional cultural sites, efforts to educate children about the value of their heritage and attempts to clarify and strengthen the country’s cultural policies.

“Turkey is offended because of having insincere responses to her claims,” said Turkish official Suslu. “Turkey has been fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural objects since the Late Ottoman Period. Many ways were tried during the past years but they were not sufficient.”

jason.felch@latimes.com