Turkish investigative journalist Ozgen Acar has spent thirty years trailing art smugglers. His findings have brought prestigious foreign museums to court and treasures back home
As a journalist, you have covered several art smuggling affairs. How did you first get involved?
I studied economics and political science at university. Archaeology is a hobby. In July 1970, Peter Hopkirk, the Sunday Times correspondent, came to Turkey. He was investigating a lead about the smuggling of an important treasure dating back to the sixth century BC, from the reign of the last Lydian king, Croesus. We worked together on this issue. The treasure had been purchased by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), then hidden in steel safes in the museum's basement. If an internationally famous institution such as the Met was working in tandem with smugglers, this deserved media attention. As a result, I began more detailed investigations.
The Lydian hoard was returned to Turkey in 1993. What took so long?
First, the secrecy surrounding the Met intensified. Meanwhile, I continued to meet with villagers and local officials in the region of the former Lydian kingdom. I didn't spend 16 years reporting on it, I just investigated and collected evidence. If I had written on the topic, the Met would have postponed putting the treasure on show. But they had to exhibit it sooner or later because some wealthy people had paid around $1.7 million between 1966 and 1968 to secure the purchase of these pieces. The Met finally exhibited 50 of the 350 pieces in the summer of 1984. I saw them myself and having determined that they matched my rough descriptions, I continued my investigations until 1986, when I published my findings in the Turkish newspaper I work for. The Turkish government brought a suit against the museum in the New York Federal Court. Six years later, the Met was forced to return the treasure.
Your investigations shed light on the inner workings of a smuggling network.
Four farmers had found the treasure in a tumulus [a tomb in a mound] in the province of Usak. They sold it in Izmir to Ali Bayirlar, a prominent smuggler, who later sold it to the owner of a New York antique gallery, John J. Klejman. Learning that these villagers had made money from the treasure, neighbouring villagers decided to try their luck. Around this time, two tumuli were stripped of their frescoes and these were also sent to New York. I should stress that I'm still angry with the curator of the Greek and Roman Department, Dietrich von Bothmer, who bought the treasure for the Met. But if he hadn't purchased the entire collection, it would have proved impossible to bring the pieces together again.
Have Western museums and private collectors generally been as reluctant as the Met to return stolen artefacts?
In the 1980s, the Antalya police caught a ring of smugglers. They had dug up a hoard of Greek coins from the fifth century BC in Elmali. The Elmali hoard was so important that it was later called the "Treasure of the Century." There were 1,900 silver coins missing. I traced them to Edip Telli and Fuat Uzulmez, two respected art dealers in Munich until my stories broke. They had links to Nevzat Telli in London, who was involved in drug and antiquity smuggling beside his textile business. The police and public prosecutors in these countries, however, made no arrests, stating that "trading in antiquities was not a crime in their countries." I concluded that the hoard was in the possession of William Koch, one of the wealthiest 400 people in the U.S. Again, legal action went on for 10 years, until Koch, realizing he would lose the case, returned the hoard to Turkey.
You have worked on many other cases since then...
Yes, and I won't be out of business any time soon. Turkey's heritage is under threat, just as it is in Greece, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Iran, India, Cambodia or China. …