Corruption is on the rise in Turkey, and the State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara is no exception. A new report in the newspaper Hurriyet has revealed that museum staff participated in a $250 million art heist of 302 works in their own institution between 2005 and 2009. The organized crime scheme replaced paintings with fake replicas, selling the original ones to businessmen. When the Turkish Cultural Ministry examined the Ankara collection they found that 302 objects were stolen, which included 46 objects and paintings that have been replaced with forged replicas, including 13 charcoal sketches by artist Hacı Ali Rıza.
The revelation was made by an anonymous antique dealer calling himself “daylight.” Phoning the Turkish culture minister Ertuğrul Günay, he claimed he was approached by ringleader Ahmet Sarı, allegedly enlisted by the museum’s female deputy director to sell authentic works in the museum’s collection. Sarı wanted “daylight” to participate in the plan, which replaced 46 of the museum’s holdings with forgeries created at the Aivazovsky Painting Academy in the Crimea. It also removed scores of others.
The art was allegedly sold to businessmen “through mediators and antique dealers known in their fields.” A famous oil painting by Turkish artist Hikmet Onat was acquired by an antique dealer for $210,000; he then passed it on to a “famous businessman” for $350,000. One of Vecihi Bereketoğlu’s painting was similarly sold to an auctioneer, accused of selling it to the son of another businessman. Since the revelations, three of 18 suspects have been arrested: Ahmet Sarı, museum security official Veli Topal, and antique dealer Mete Aktuna. Just a few of the works have been recovered, while 30 other works in the museum are now considered to be of possible “dubious authenticity.”
Writing on ARCA, Lynda Albertson makes an important point that the case exposes the increasingly favorable climate for trafficking antiquities in Turkey and the region, boosted by wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq:
The fact that this group of criminals were able to operate so freely and for so long within Turkish borders and within the legitimate art market without detection reflects the country’s heritage vulnerability as a trafficking conduit not just for its own works of art but also for objects originating from nearby nations such as Syria and Iraq where trafficking and looting have been reported.
Correction, 11/14: An earlier version of this story was illustrated with an image of an adjacent building which originally housed the museum but is today the Ethnography Museum of Ankara.
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