July 14, 2006

Ten people charged in Croesus theft case

Posted at 9:43 pm in Similar cases

Following on from the suspected theft of items from the Croesus treasury in Turkey, a number of arrests have now been made. Depending on how the case develops, this is an important step towards Turkey regaining international confidence that items which are returned will be safe in its museums.

Turkish Daily News

10 charged in missing brooch case
Friday, July 14, 2006
ANKARA – Turkish Daily News

The Uşak Prosecutor’s Office has charged 10 people, including a local museum director, with embezzlement and artifact smuggling in a case involving the theft of a piece of the famed Lydian Hoard at the Uşak Museum.

The office sought 25 years’ imprisonment for eight of the suspects and four years each for two others.

According to reports Prosecutor Mustafa Çelebi said in his indictment that an investigation, sparked by a tip-off, had revealed that a winged seahorse brooch in the collection had been replaced by a fake. “Museum Director Kazım Akbıyıkoğlu had 259 telephone conversations with the suspects taken into custody for the theft.”

The indictment said the suspects referred to the original brooch as an “organic tomato” and the fake one as an “inorganic tomato” after they suspected their phones were tapped.

“The phones of suspects Fehmi İşler and Suat Yenmez were tapped, and they were recorded talking to buyers whose identities have yet to be discovered.” The suspects are on tape speaking about taking the brooch to Japan and that it was being in being kept in Bulgaria.

The indictment said Akbıyıkoğlu had reached an agreement with the other suspects to sell the brooch. The fake version was cast in an unknown location and the director replaced the original with it.

“Investigations reveal that two days before the police operation was launched to catch the suspects on May 29, the original brooch was in the possession of Fehmi İşler, as photos recorded on his phone show. The photo taken on May 27 of the piece was the original and the pants İşler was wearing, which appeared in the photo, was the one he wore when he was taken into custody. The phone and the pants were admitted as evidence.”

The prosecutor demanded 25 years’ imprisonment for Akbıyıklıoğlu, Mehmet Polat, Halil Eker, Fuat Ergün, Fehmi İşler, Ahmet Düzyer, Uğuz Sağlan and Suat Yenmez for smuggling and embezzlement and sought four years’ imprisonment for police officers Bülent Yücel and İsmail Bilgin for failing to report the theft despite having knowledge of it.

The indictment comes as security at Turkish museums came under fire after a series of thefts, which have sounded the alarm over Turkey’s ability to protect its heritage, prompting inspections in public museums across the country.

The issue is crucial to a country that is home to about 3,000 ancient cities from 42 civilizations, where the booming tourism industry relies on its rich historical heritage to attract millions of foreigners each year.

The embarrassment over the theft in Uşak was compounded by the fact that the famed 2,500-year-old collection, known in Turkey as the Karun Treasure, was repatriated only in 1993 after a lengthy legal battle with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that reportedly cost Turkey $40 million.

Tourism and Culture Minister Atilla Koç said he had ordered an investigation into 32 other public museums, saying in an interview with the Turkish Daily News that he “would not be surprised if every one of them reported missing pieces.”

Authorities have already discovered that 545 coins dating from the Persian Empire are missing from another museum in southeastern Turkey.

Koç put the blame for inadequate security on financial shortcomings, a lack of technology to keep digital records of artifacts and on bureaucratic mismanagement over the years.

Experts stressed that the museums are severely understaffed. “Ten years ago we had 1,500 experts working in museums throughout Turkey — now we have 750,” said Özgen Acar, a veteran journalist who specializes in archeology and was instrumental in bringing the Karun Treasure back to Turkey. “We simply haven’t been able to get new people because of a lack of funds,” he said.

The theft raised concerns that it may now become even harder for Turkey to fight for the return of stolen pieces from Western museums, many of which already argue that they are better equipped to protect the artifacts.

“The British Museum, for example, has refused for years to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens, using the argument that they are better protected by staying in London,” said Julian Bennett, an archeology professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University.

The brooch was part of the hoard of King Croesus, the Lydian ruler who equated wealth with happiness and gave rise to the term “as rich as Croesus.” The treasure was spirited away shortly after it was unearthed near Usak in the 1960s and resurfaced at the Met in the 1980s.

Market experts say the brooch appears to have been stolen on an “advance order” by a private collector, probably non-Turkish, because thieves would normally avoid the risk of seeking a buyer for such a well-known piece.

If so, they say, the brooch will probably disappear from sight for at least 100 years until the theft is forgotten; it may also, however, resurface soon if the huge outcry over the affair discourages the collector from going ahead with the deal.

Acar argued that the blame lies primarily with wealthy Western buyers who seek out stolen artifacts from poor countries with rich historical heritages. “If they support the idea that artifacts belong to the whole of humanity, they must stop encouraging smuggling,” he said.

The ministry’s list of stolen museum pieces currently includes 35 items, but the number of artifacts looted from archaeological sites is unknown.

Turkey is currently seeking to repatriate one-half of a statue of Hercules from the Boston Museum — the other half is in Antalya, the Mediterranean city near where it was found.

“If there is any justice in the United States, the Uşak case will not affect our legal affairs in the future,” Acar said.

Bennett stressed the need to also raise the awareness of historical heritage among Turks who, he argued, often undervalue artifacts from pre-Islamic periods until they attract international attention. “There needs to be greater emphasis that it is of value for all Turks, for all times,” he said.

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