Hundreds of artworks in Turkish museum stolen and replaced with fakes
Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent
* Last Updated: March 26. 2010 12:12AM UAE / March 25. 2010 8:12PM
ISTANBUL // Inspectors in a state-run museum in Turkey’s capital
Ankara have raised the alarm after finding that hundreds of paintings
by Turkish masters have been replaced by copies or simply vanished
without a trace.
“The museum has been looted,” said Osman Altintas, an art professor
from Ankara’s Gazi University. He leads a team of experts sent by the
culture ministry to investigate how many original paintings in the
Ankara State Museum for Painting and Sculpture are actually still
there and how many have been replaced by copies.
Speaking to Turkish media earlier this month, Dr Altintas put the
number of vanished or copied paintings at about 400, or about 10 per
cent of the total number of paintings in the museum. He estimated that
the thefts may total 100 million lira (Dh238m). News reports this week
said a previous inspection in 1996 found that 313 paintings had been
missing even then.
To make matters worse, Dr Altintas found that storage conditions for
paintings in the museum were so poor that many works of art that were
still there had been damaged or destroyed. “It would have been better
if they had been stolen,” he said.
Government officials said that in some cases, state institutions had
helped themselves to precious works of art from the museum to adorn
offices and reception halls. Critics say the looting of the museum,
which went on for 30 years, is a sign of the country’s failure to
adequately protect its cultural heritage.
Ertugrul Gunay, the culture minister, is the man in the eye of the
storm. He promised to clear up the mess, but immediately had to admit
that his own ministry had taken eight paintings from the museum. They
were recently returned, as a good example to other ministries, as he
put it. “From now on, we will only give reproductions to state
institutions, not originals,” the minister said.
Public attention focused on the disappearance of 13 works of Hoca Ali
Riza (1858–1939), an artist renowned for his paintings and drawings of
Istanbul whose works can fetch prices of tens of thousands of dollars.
Omer Osman Gundogdu, the museum director, admitted that he did not
even know when the missing charcoal drawings were stolen and replaced
by copies. “It may have been five or 10 years ago,” he said.
Mr Gundogdu also said the museum’s system of surveillance cameras had
been out of order for a long time. The problem is exacerbated by the
fact that the museum’s storage and inventory system leaves much to be
desired. “Our depot is a little crowded,” the director said. Asked on
television about reports that inspectors had found five empty frames
in the museum, Mr Gundogdu said the pictures belonging to the frames
“may turn up somewhere”.
Omer Faruk Serifoglu, a writer who has edited a book about Hoca Ali
Riza, said that of the 441 works of the artist that had been given to
the state only 56 remained in official records. “It is unknown what
happened to the rest,” he told the Cumhuriyet newspaper.
The investigation in Ankara was triggered by the discovery of a case
of art robbery in a museum in the town of Usak, in the south-west of
the country, in 2006. There, thieves replaced a 2,000-year-old golden
brooch in the shape of a winged sea-horse with a copy. The theft went
unnoticed for months, and the original has not been found. Earlier
this year, the director of the museum was sentenced to 13 years in
prison for being behind the crime. He says he is innocent.
Following the incident in Usak, the culture ministry ordered
inspections in museums around the country. In the Ankara museum, an
official was fired because he was suspected of being involved in the
disappearance of three paintings, Mr Gunay told reporters. According
to news reports, the police are still searching for 31 works of art
that disappeared from the museum 13 years ago. “The museums are in the
hands of Allah,” one newspaper headline said.
Mr Gunay said paintings started to vanish from the Ankara museum after
the military coup of 1980. “Back then, paintings were handed out as
presents to high-ranking institutions” of the state, he said. A total
of 649 works of art from the museum ended up in the buildings of other
state institutions, according to the minister. So far, 121 paintings
have been returned.
The combination of a self-service mentality by state institutions,
theft, as well as bad surveillance and management, speaks volumes
about Turkey’s relationship with its own cultural heritage, critics
say. Last month, a local historian on the Datca peninsula in south-
western Turkey alerted the media, saying authorities there had failed
to protect the ruins of the ancient city of Knidos from art robbers.
He said that only two guards were watching over Knidos in the winter
months. Eight suspected robbers had been arrested within two weeks, he
“The number of security personnel in our museums is low,” Tomur
Atagok, a professor at the Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, told
the NTV news channel. She added that Turkish museums also lacked an
adequate number of art experts and an efficient system of record-
keeping. “If there are experts in a museum, they have to know what
kind of art works are in their own collection,” she said. “There have
to be records about where the originals go” when they leave the