IN A CASE OF LIFE IMITATING ART, thieves a few years ago slipped through a small window tucked in the back of the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul, Turkey, and made off with nine Ottoman artifacts. The heist was reminiscent of the rear-window entrance by the "human fly" in the 1964 thriller Topkapi, where the gang successfully stole an emerald-handled dagger as part of an elaborate caper, only to get tripped up by a small mishap.
But in real life, Turkish museum officials have not had such luck in nabbing the culprits: The manuscripts, shawls, and a folding screen decorated with mother-of-pearl that were swiped by the recent back-window burglars have not yet been recovered. That theft was one of many in the last few years that have resulted in the loss of some 43 treasures from the Topkapi Palace, an elegant former home to Ottoman sultans, whose court overlooked the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn.
Nationwide, Turkey has suffered a string of museum heists that has called into question the state's ability to protect its cultural patrimony. Burglars have stolen gold-embroidered Korans, monograms signed by sultans, and objects of pure gold belonging to the famous Lydian Hoard of King Croesus.
"It would not be wrong to state that there is an overall security and safety problem" within Turkey's 95 government-run museums and more than 140 open-air archaeological sites, says Sinan Demir, a retired police chief who works as a security manager in a state museum.
While the state struggles to upgrade its deteriorated institutions, a new crop of privately funded museums has emerged armed with cutting-edge security. The newcomers are richer than the state network; they have the luxury of working within relatively modern structures in good condition; they are uninhibited by Turkey's notorious bureaucracy; and they have been able to introduce new security measures since their inception. "When they got these museums up and running during the past two years or so, they were able to build the security network in step with the museum. It's custom-made," says Orhan Aksel, CPP, founder of MGS, the leading electronic security company in Turkey, which has worked on several of the new buildings.
The New Breed
In the elegant foyer of the Pera Museum in the higher-up neighborhoods of Istanbul, a lone black piano sits under a chandelier, roped off from visitors entering the adjacent cafe. The piano was a gift from its previous owner, Maria Callas, to her most influential vocal instructor, Elvira de Hidalgo, before Callas moved overseas from Athens and went on to become one of history's most famous divas. The instrument made several trips across the Bosphorus and inspired the novel The Piano by Yigit Akur before landing in the Pera.
Getting to the piano at night would require the talents of Lady Claudine Litton, fictitious master thief of the Pink Panther diamond. The roof of the 19th-century building has photo-beam sensors, the doors are rigged with alarms, and CCTV monitors scan the premises.
"I think our system is one of the most capable at a museum in Istanbul," says security supervisor Kamuran Basaran.
Family legacy. Formerly the Bristol Hotel, the Pera stands a block from Istanbul's bustling Istiklal Caddesi pedestrian shopping drag and a rabbit warren of restaurants where diners drink the local brandy (raki), smoke like stacks, and wolf down mezes (appetizers).
Opened in June 2005, the Pera's permanent collection consists of oriental paintings, Anatolian weights and measures, portraits of Ottoman imperialists, and precious ceramics. At the time I visited in November 2006, there was a special exhibition of Rembrandt sketches.
The museum is bankrolled by the Suna and Inan Kirac Foundation run by the Koc family, Turkey's wealthiest dynasty. An initial $35 million went into gutting and restoring the Victorian structure, and along the way a comprehensive security system was laid in. …