In her new book, “LOOT: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World,” Sharon Waxman, a former culture reporter for the New York Times and longtime foreign correspondent, gives readers a behind-the-scenes view of the high-stakes, high-powered conflict over who should own the world’s great works of ancient art. Traveling the globe, Waxman met with museum directors, curators, government officials, dealers and journalists to unravel the cultural politics of where antiquities ought to be kept. In the following excerpt from the chapter titled “Chasing the Lydian Hoard,” Waxman tracks a Turkish journalist’s dogged quest for the return of looted artifacts, the ultimate outcome of that quest and its consequences.
Chapter 6 Excerpt
Özgen Acar had been a reporter for Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest daily newspaper, for a decade when, in 1970, he received a visit from Peter Hopkirk, a British journalist from the Sunday Times of London.
“I’m chasing a treasure,” Hopkirk told Acar, intriguingly. “It’s been smuggled out of Turkey. A U.S. museum bought it, and it’s a big secret.”
Acar had grown up in Izmir, on the western coast of Turkey, and had an early taste of antiquities when his mother, an elementary school teacher, took him to museums and to the sites of the ancient Greek origins of his native city. In 1963 he traveled with his backpack along the Turkish coastline, discovering the cultural riches there. But his abiding interest was current affairs, and he had studied political science and economics before getting his first job as a journalist.
Nonetheless, he was intrigued by Hopkirk’s call. Earlier that year, American journalists had gotten a whiff of a brewing scandal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Boston Globe had written about a set of golden treasures acquired controversially by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and in doing so mentioned a “Lydian hoard” taken from tombs near Sardis, in Turkey’s Hermus river valley, that was being held in secret by the Met. In August 1970 the New York Times printed a dispatch from the Times of London in which Turkey officially asked for details about the alleged illegal export, warning that it would bar foreign archaeologists from any country that did not return smuggled treasures. Theodore Rousseau, the Met’s chief curator, denied that the museum had exported anything illegally, but added, mysteriously, that there “seemed to be hearsay fabricated around something that might have a kernel of truth to it.”
Hopkirk, the British journalist, was looking to break the story, but he needed a Turkish partner to help him chase the trail locally. He offered Acar the opportunity to team up and investigate and publish simultaneously in both papers. Acar grabbed what seemed like a good story.
They chased the clues that Hopkirk had from his sources: a group of hundreds of golden pieces—coins and jewelry and household goods—had been found near Usak, in southwestern Turkey. Usak was the closest population center to what had been the heart of the kingdom of Lydia in the sixth century BC. The trove had been bought by the Met, which knew that the pieces had no known origin, or provenance, and was keeping the pieces in its storerooms. Acar traveled to Usak, a small town where the residents said no one had heard of a recently discovered golden hoard. He also went to New York City and visited the Met. He called the Ancient Near East department and spoke to the curator, Oscar White Muscarella. Muscarella told him there was nothing like what he described in his department.
In the end, the journalists couldn’t produce anything definitive. Hopkirk was frustrated, but Acar was intrigued; why, he wondered, did a British journalist care so much about ancient pieces from Turkey anyway? He began to consider the issue from a different perspective, as a problem that affected world culture and human history, not just Turkish history. No one, he decided, has the right to smuggle antiquities. As he continued his research, he became more convinced of this, and angrier at those who had irretrievably damaged a tangible link to the past.
For 16 years, Acar didn’t publish a thing about the Lydian treasures. But he continued to work on the story in his spare time. As 1970 gave way to 1971 and 1972, he traveled to Usak once every five or six months, making the six-hour journey to the small town by bus. He asked if anyone had heard about digs in the tumuli outside of town, but no one said they had, at least initially. But as two years became three, and three years became five, six, and eight, Acar became a familiar face in the village. Sources began to crack. He would hear the grumbling, here and there, from people who had missed out on the windfall, about others who had been paid for digging in the tumuli. He conducted re-search about the Lydian kingdom, whose capital was in Sardis and whose borders stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Persian frontier. The greatest of the Lydian kings, Croesus, was renowned for his vast treasures of gold and silver. His name became synonymous in the West with the measure of extreme wealth—“as rich as Croesus.” By some accounts Croesus was the first ruler to mint coins, and he filled the Lydian treasury with his wealth. He ordered the construction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But he was also the last king of Lydia. In 547 BC, Croesus was toppled by King Cyrus of Persia, who reduced the Lydian kingdom to a distant outpost of his empire.