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Turkey Lobbies Museums Around World to Return Artifacts

Istanbul's Haghia Sophia Museum (2010 photo)Istanbul's Haghia Sophia Museum (2010 photo)
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Istanbul's Haghia Sophia Museum (2010 photo)
Istanbul's Haghia Sophia Museum (2010 photo)
Dorian Jones
ISTANBUL — Turkey is following an increasingly aggressive policy of getting top museums around the world to return its heritage. Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay says that in the last decade, more than 4,000 artifacts had been brought back to Turkey from world museums and collections.

Turkey's minister of culture recently opened a new archeological museum in the western city of Izmir. Ertugrul Gunay is the architect of a museum revolution in the country aiming to harness Turkey's rich heritage.

New archeological museums across the country have been opened, with even more planned, while established ones have had expensive makeovers. But as Gunay made clear in opening this latest museum, his revolution has international implications.

Gunay says when you visit the world's big museums in the US, England, France, Germany, you see that most of the precious artifacts came from Turkey, Italy, Egypt and Greece. Some of these, he says, were looted, and he is fighting to get back historical artifacts that went to the big museums of the world illegally from Turkey.

Along with aggressively taking action in court for the return of artifacts from major museums around the world, Gunay has adopted a new approach.

Earlier this year, he vetoed the lending of artifacts to a major exhibition by the British Museum until it returned artifacts Ankara claims were illegally removed. Similar sanctions are also being applied to other major museums.

Nezih Basgelen, editor of a leading Turkish archeological magazine, says the policy could have far reaching consequences for museums around the world.

"We have some lists many, many lists, for Germany, United Kingdom, United States, for France and maybe Austria. More than a thousand - thousands of pieces, some ceramic material too much, some of them coins. Many marble things, big objects - sarcophagus, and big statues - many things," Basgelen said.

Turkey's ministry of culture also uses the country's continuing popularity for archeologists as a means to apply pressure. Ankara threatened to suspend a German archaeologist's permit on a major site unless a German museum returned a disputed artifact back to Turkey. The museum eventually complied last year.  

But the tough policy has drawn criticism that the ministry should set its own house in order before looking abroad. Ozgen Acar, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Cumhurriyet, has devoted much of his life to the return of stolen artifacts from abroad.

"This looting anarchy in Turkey is getting bigger and bigger, at the same time they are trying to retrieve the items from different museums in the world. But the government is not taking care of this kind of looting at home, this is big mistake," Acar said.

The minister disputes the charge claiming there has been a 12-fold increase in resources for archeological excavations in the past 12 years.  

There is also a powerful economic factor behind Turkey's drive to return of high profile artifacts.

Turkey's archeological past is now a key part of the government's drive to attract tourists, with commercials like this one promoting the country as a destination that offers more than just sun and beaches.

Part of that policy includes the building of one of world's largest archeological museums for the capital, Ankara.

Basgelen, the archeological magazine editor, worries the aggressive policy of returning artifacts could end up hurting Turkey's museums and archeology projects. He suggests a compromise in which artifacts could be loaned to museums for 40 years.

But the Turkish culture minister appears determined to pursue the return of the artifacts.  He has announced an agreement with Greece to join forces in their struggle, and negotiations are continuing with Italy and Egypt.

Observers warn the implications of the controversy could well be far reaching for the world's greatest archeological museums.

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