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Met faces claims for Hittite artefacts

Provenance of late trustee’s gifts investigated as Turkey takes tougher line on restitution

Turkey has claimed 15 antiquities donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by one of its trustees. The collector Norbert Schimmel, who has a gallery named in his honour, gave the collection in 1989, a year before his death. The Turkish ministry of culture, which is taking a tougher line on restitution claims against major museums besides the Met (The Art Newspaper, March 2012, p1), confirmed that it raised the issue with the New York museum at a meeting at the end of September last year.

Most of the objects are from the Hittite Empire that, at its height in the 14th century BC, controlled most of present-day Turkey. A spokeswoman for the Met says that Turkey has requested provenance data on 18 pieces, which the museum is “in the process of providing”.

Although the material has not been publicly identified, Schimmel’s 1989 gift includes two Hittite masterpieces: a silver drinking vessel featuring a stag, and a gold pendant of a seated goddess with a child (both 14th-13th centuries BC). The Met records them in Schimmel’s collection in 1964, but without any earlier provenance, which suggests that Turkey may be seeking further information on them. Schimmel also gave an important belt ornament in the form of a bird-demon, 7th century BC, from the Urartian empire, in eastern Turkey.

Schimmel was a major donor of antiquities from the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East: a gallery on prehistoric Cyprus is named after him.

The Met’s spokeswoman says: “We are not aware that the museum has any artefacts that are Turkish state property. The Metropolitan very much hopes to continue its longtime, collaborative relationship with Turkey, which has allowed visitors from around the world to experience its magnificent art.”

The anti-smuggling and intelligence bureau of Turkey’s ministry of culture and tourism says that “lots” of artefacts in foreign museums have been “illegally” removed from the country. Restitution claims had been “procrastinated for many years”, but a tough policy is now being introduced.

The ministry is singling out the British Museum in London for criticism, following our report that a claim had been lodged for a first-century BC stele from Selik. Turkish officials categorise the museum’s assertion about the legal export of the stele from French-ruled Syria in 1928 as “hardly believable”, in view of the “competition” at the time between French and UK museums to acquire antiquities. The British Museum responds it has a letter from archaeologist Leonard Woolley, who sold the museum the artefact, dated 7 April 1924, saying that approval had been given for the export of a group of antiquities.

Turkey is making progress with its claim against London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) for a head from the Sidamara sarcophagus, 3rd century BC. The Turkish ministry revealed that it has “agreed in principle with the V&A about signing a memorandum on returning the head of Eros”, so that it can be displayed with the main part of the sarcophagus at Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum.

A V&A spokeswoman says: “We are pleased with the progress of discussions with the Turkish government, the details of which are still being considered. Every effort will be made to move forward promptly once the terms of the agreement have been finalised.”

Although the Turkish statement suggests restitution, the V&A is normally unable to deaccession. It is unclear what sort of a loan is being negotiated, whether the loan agreement would include acknowledgment that the V&A is the legal owner, or if it will be an unprecedented permanent restitution.

The Turkish ministry says that it has a “new policy” of suspending loans to exhibitions at museums that it regards as holding illegally acquired material. This has already hit the British Museum’s “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” (until 15 April): the museum had asked to borrow 35 objects. Loans are also being withheld from the Met, although the museum says that none were formally requested for its current “Byzantium and Islam” show (until 8 July).

The ministry’s statement also points out that foreign archaeologists are currently working on 43 excavations and 21 surveys in Turkey. It is implied that those who are from museums that hold “illegally exported” antiquities may no longer be welcome in Turkey—an escalation of the restitution campaign.

A Turkish claim is also expected against Bowling Green State University, Ohio, over 12 sections of a Roman mosaic. They were bought in 1965 for $35,000 from a New York dealer, Peter Marks, and were assumed to have been legitimately excavated at Antioch. But research published earlier this year shows that they probably came from Zeugma and were possibly looted. In January, the mosaics went on display in the new Wolfe Center for the Arts. Mary Mazey, the university’s president, has promised to “do the right thing” if the claim proves well founded.