Newly discovered thefts upset Turkish art scene
GÜL DEMİR and NIKI GAMM
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Turks woke up this past week to the news that a number of drawings by Hoca Ali Rıza had disappeared from the Ankara State Painting and Sculpture Museum in Ankara.
It was suspected that this was an inside job and on further scrutiny it was decided that the disappearance had occurred some years previously. It hadn’t been discovered since these pieces were replaced with imitations or photocopies of the originals. Further examination also showed that works by other artists had disappeared.
The incident threw into the public’s view the lack of security in the country’s museums and not just in the museums. As happens in many countries, leading officials are allowed to “borrow” artwork to decorate their offices and official houses such as the presidential home from leading public museums. It is not uncommon for such works of art to not make it back to the lending museum.
One report has it that when Turgut Özal was president, his wife requested a number of Ali Rıza works for the presidential mansion and these were not returned afterwards. The same holds true for the İstinye mansion in Istanbul that Tansu Çiller used as her prime ministerial office when in town. The works were uncounted for and many thought the fire that destroyed part of that building had been set deliberately to cover up the theft.
Professor Nurhan Atasoy, one of the leading experts on Ottoman Art, told Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review that Hoca Ali Rıza’s work was important from the standpoint of modern Turkish art. But the theft throws doubt on the ability of the country’s museums’ security systems to prevent such from happening. If the museums had all of their holdings photographed properly it would be possible to distribute these pictures to the appropriate authorities. Works of art have also to be registered. By not doing this, the museum can’t even tell what’s missing. With proper security measures, thieves would find it impossible to sell any stolen piece. Atasoy also pointed out that many items were out in the open so it becomes easy to steal them. She gave as an example two candlesticks in Bursa. Since there were photographs, it had been possible to recover them.
Stealing art an ancient profession
Stealing art is nothing new. It is as old as the pyramids and probably older. The modern world has only come to know this thanks to the people who have engaged in archaeological excavations. Many of these have been illegal and the contents have long since disappeared, sold or even melted down for money. Today even the results of those digs that were conducted legally with the permission of the government of that time have come under suspicion. For ages the Greek government has tried to get the Elgin marbles back from the British Museum even though they were removed from the Ottoman Empire with the permission of the Ottoman government.
Recently the head of Egypt’s Archaeological Council, Zahi Hawass, has been pressing for the return of the beautiful head of Queen Nefertiti. Although he has had some success with other antiquities, it does not look as though he’ll be successful in this instance.
The Turkish government in recent years has achieved some success in getting items returned. The Karun Treasure was brought back to Turkey after it was proven that the Metropolitan Museum of Art knew that it had been stolen when it purchased it. It hadn’t been back in Turkey for long before it was discovered that a particularly striking gold piece was a fake.
Art is actually rather easy to steal, especially paintings since they are easily removed from their frames and are light to carry. If a work is well known, the thief most likely will already have a buyer in mind and it has been known or at least rumored that some art collectors will pay to have someone steal a particular work for them. When that is the case, the possibility of recovering it is very difficult. The work isn’t sold and never sees the light of day until of course that person’s heir decides to sell it or there’s a tip to authorities.
In many countries there is a statue of limitations on how long a piece of art can stay missing. This is often five years. After that the original owner cannot make a claim for the piece. There are several exceptions to this. One of these is if a treasure has been “looted” by another country, as was the case during Nazi Germany. The latter had a specific policy of collecting works of art from conquered countries and transporting them back to Germany. With many of the original owners dead after the war, claims have been hard to prove and recovery difficult.
Reputable auction houses such as Sotheby’s insist that there be a valid bill of sale presented before they will consider auctioning off items. That doesn’t mean they don’t get caught accepting fakes in spite of all the efforts of their experts to ensure that the artwork is genuine.
A scandal, that is another one, erupted when an exhibition was held of works painted by artists who worked in Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century. Several of the works on loan from wealthy Turkish buyers who relied on the word of “experts” when they bought them were shown to be fakes. In another instance, an expert was rumored to be involved in authenticating works of art that he himself had had copied.
Only more advanced security techniques and more money spent on security at museums will prevent further thefts.
Who is Ali Rıza?
Ali Rıza was born in Üsküdar in 1857. His father was a cavalry officer. He graduated from primary and secondary schools in Üsküdar where his teachers early recognized his talent for drawing. He later finished the Military Academy where he was later to teach. He retired from the military in 1910 and then taught at the Daruşşafaka, the Girls’ Industrial School and girls’ schools in Üsküdar and Çamlıca. Because of his teaching, he was called Hoca Ali Rıza, Hoca means teacher in Turkish. He died at his home in Üsküdar in 1930.
Hoca Ali Rıza was one of the few Turkish artists of his time who did not fall under the influence of western painting. Unlike his friends, he never went to Europe. His pencil drawings and the paintbrush are entirely Turkish. He drew on Üsküdar and the Bosphorus as the inspiration for many of his pencil works with the spirit of a naturalist. He was able to turn out many works in a short period of time as if he saw what he was about to portray in front of him on the blank paper. Many of his works he put together in ways in which he could teach students how to view buildings, trees and the like. His works have such a character that one can immediately identify that they belong to Hoca Ali Rıza.