Stemming the Flow

By Doxey, John | The Middle East, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

Stemming the Flow


Doxey, John, The Middle East


John Doxey reports from Istanbul on Turkey's thriving illegal antiquities export trade and government attempts to curb it.

Home at various times to more than 30 civilisations, Turkey provides antiquities smugglers with an endless supply of objects: Lycian coins, Hellenistic statues. Byzantine silver and elaborately carved mosque doors. Objects worth an estimated $200 million slip through Turkey's por ous borders each year, most plucked from the burial mounds and ancient cities of Anatolia for sale to First World collectors.

In their struggle to stem the outflow, Turkish authorities have recently received help from an unlikely source. Sami Guneri Gulener worked 30 years in the underground antiquities trade, mostly as a transporter, or "jockey" of stolen and illegally excavated artifacts. In that time, he claims to have slipped hundreds of priceless objects out of Turkey.

But, although her remains proud of his success as a smuggler - "I can pass a 10-ton statue through the eye of a needle," he boasts - dapper 47 year-old Gulener has decided to use his insider's knowledge to help authorities crack down on the trade, providing Turkey's Minister of Culture with strugglers' names and other information. "I'm a patriot," he says. "The bur eaucrats should know how easy [smuggling] has become before it's too late and everything disappears." Gulener says he receives no pay for the information.

Scholars and government officials need all the help they can get. Illegal exportation of Turkish artifacts dates at least to the mid-19th century, when European archaeology buffs hauled out priceless monuments like the Hellenistic Altar of Zeus from Pergamon and Priam's Treasure from ancient Troy without Ottoman permission. But experts say the trade has mushroomed since the late 1960s, when Mafia-style outfits sprang up in Istanbul and Germany to mastermind the contraband pipeline.

"It's all about supply and demand," says Ozgen Acar, a columnist with the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, who began crusading against the antiquities trade more than 25 years ago. "Turks realised about that time that they could buy an ancient piece for a few thousand dollars from the farmer who found it and sell it in New York or Munich for $500,000," he says. A turn-of-the-century Turkish law requires that all antiquities be registered with the Culture Ministry within a month of their discovery. Nobody, not even the state, can legally sell them abroad. That means that at some point along the way, most Turkish antiquities in foreign collections were acquired illegally.

Before the international smuggling rings took over, the antiquities trade was centred in Istanbul's lab yrinthine Grand Bazaar where, over glasses of tea, shops peddled all kinds of artifacts picked up from thieves and grave robbers. Now, experts on both sides of the law say, roughly 85% of this booty passes through neighbouring Bulgaria, several hours drive north from Istanbul. A few thousand dollars worth of baksheesh, or gratuity, is usually all it takes to persuade customs officials at the frontier to look the other away. That makes the Turkey-Bulgaria corridor one of Europe's major gateways for narcotics, stolen cars and guns, as well as antiquities.

Lack of a cultural-protection pact between the two countries, such as the one Turkey has with Greece, makes things easy for antiquities traders. Once the items are safely across the Bulgarian border, they can be exported legally. They are usually taken to Sofia airport, then flown to dealers in Western Europe.

"Getting a piece out of the country is the easy part," says Gulener, who claims to have jockeyed out of Turkey several artifacts now displayed in European and American museums. The advent of Mafia-like smuggling rings, which government officials say are controlled by three Istanbul-based family groups, has made selling to international business easier, too. The rings have the "ability to market the items through their international connections," including posh European art galleries and jetsetting collectors, says Gulener, who hesitates to call the rings Mafias. …

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