Perspective from Turkey
Bekircan Tahberer, a licensed collector of ancient coins in Turkey shares his views about U.S. import restrictions, governmental policies and academia.
Bekircan Tahberer |
March 31, 2005
With the passage of HR 1047, which includes prohibitions on the importation of ancient coins from Iraq, it seems that the American friends (and mentors?) of the General Directory of the Cultural Assets and Museums (formerly called the General Directorate of Monuments and Museums) that regulates (restricts!) collecting of ancient coins, as well as all excavation and research permits in Turkey, have won a battle in the U.S. They are so well organized and determined in reaching their goals that it is quite hard to counter their propaganda that everything they do is to protect the cultural heritage of countries.
With the guidance of the so called Directory, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture of Turkey had gone to court in the U.S. to get back the famous Croesus Treasures that were being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was interested in the Treasure because when I first visited the Metropolitan in 1990 it was on display in a chamber labeled “Hellenistic Treasure” where I tried to protest in vain to some museum officials that they were not Hellenistic but Lydian. Croesus was a Lydian king famous for his immense wealth. The Croesus treasures were unearthed in the 1960s in three tumuli near Usak (a province in mid Western Turkey) but were sadly smuggled abroad as were hundreds of thousands of other ancient coins and artifacts. 150 priceless treasures from this collection were placed on exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1985. After a long and drawn out battle with the museum, the stolen treasures were returned to Turkey in 1993. They have been on display at the Usak Archeological Museum since 1996. After my visit to the Metropolitan I wrote a letter to the Culture Minister of Turkey suggesting that it would have been more advantageous to Turkey if those treasures had remained in New York where many thousands of people visit each year. As a condition, the treasure could have been properly labeled and some brochures highlighting the archaeological richness of Anatolia, as well as Usak region, could have been made available to all visitors to the chamber where the treasure was on display. In Usak, only a couple hundred people visit the exhibit. Sadly I didn’t receive an answer.
In another case, the Turkish Government took the owners of the Elmali Hoard to court. The hoard, a sensational find that contained about 1700 (some says 1900) tetradrachms from different city states as well as some 14 decadrachms was unearthed in 1984 and smuggled out of Turkey. The lawsuit took about 10 years, at a tremendous cost, to prosecute, but in the end the American owner of the coins agreed to hand over 1661 of them to Turkey. The irony is that although many years have passed since the hoard was brought back to Turkey and placed at the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara, it is not on display.
In prosecuting the two cases mentioned above, the Turkish government spent a tremendous amount of money that could have been used to purchase twenty times more ancient coins and artifacts from the local people in Turkey. That way, important artifacts and coins could have remained in the country and some local people could have benefited from it.
It is curious that even though everyone in the ministry of culture, universities, archaeology departments, police, customs officials and smuggling circles know that the first stop for looted archaeological items is usually Germany (Switzerland, France and England seem to be secondary stops taking turns in time), the Turkish government never made any attempt to get its historical heritage from Germany or other European countries! It can be argued that the looted items are not displayed in Germany as they have been in the U.S. but that cannot be the only reason… It is funny that some governments take action when antiquities go directly to the U.S. but if they go to Europe first, no problem!
It is clear to everyone that looting of archaeological sites and removing items of cultural heritage from their original places is unacceptable. It is clear that the items that represent the historical heritage belong to all men to protect, to study and to hand over to the next generations. It is also very clear that looting did not begin when the modern world started to collect antiquities; it was a common practice since the beginning of history. So, blaming private collecting as the greatest reason for looting is baseless. Many of the Egyptian tombs were looted right after they were closed down. That is why the builders strained their brains to conceal them with so many tricks. Ancient temples were looted by kings, emperors, generals and even priests that were supposed to protect them in antiquity. Maybe the greatest looting and destruction of art pieces was practiced after Constantine accepted Christianity. It is known very well that many gold, silver, bronze statues were melted down in order to strike coins to pay armies in times of crises. Were there private collectors then? Today, imbalance of income in source countries seems to be the main reason for archaeological looting. Not only archaeological sites, but many historically important places, among them churches and mosques, are also looted every day.
The core of the antiquity law in Turkey’s is almost 120 years old and since then only minor changes have been made. Private Citizens are allowed to collect antiquities by getting a license from their local museums depending on the collecting regulations of the General Directory of the Cultural Assets and Museums of Turkey since 1974. Several attempts have been made to stop private ownership (collecting) of antiquities in recent years but they somehow (thanks to some very rich collectors’ influence at the ministry) retreated from their proposals. The funny part of this attempt to ban collecting was it was first proposed by foreign scholars and their Turkish counterparts only followed their recommendations. A reputed Turkish archaeology professor said in one of his conferences that they were proud of the 120 year old antiquity law which even Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey didn’t change. Ironically under that very law, the greatest looting and smuggling of history has been practiced!
Modern elitists now claim that archaeology and all antiquities belong to academia, blaming private collecting as the most important reason for looting, overlooking all political and scholarly mistakes.
This is not a debate that will end nor will the opposing sides likely come to a compromise soon. Both sides will struggle for what they believe right. Academia seems to be very strong and is in a position to affect law makers at the moment. Serious collectors must also unite and work hard to prove that collecting antiquities doesn’t necessarily increase looting nor it is the reason for it. It is also necessary to show that the agenda academics put forward is not actually to stop looting but to establish a hegemony on ownership and control of antiquities.