Chasing the Lydian Hoard

Author Sharon Waxman digs into the tangle over looted artifacts between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Turkish government

In 2006, it was discovered that the hippocampus had been stolen from its case and replaced with a fake. This counterfeit is now on display at the Usak museum. (Sharon Waxman / Times Books)

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Convinced that the Met possessed the Lydian hoard but was refusing to acknowledge it, Acar continued his investigation year after year, visiting Usak and, when he could, questioning the Met. (In Turkey, the hoard became known as “the Karun treasures,” as Karun is the Arabic and Persian rendition of Croesus.) Acar became known in Usak for opposing the looting of Turkey’s cultural patrimony, and on one visit he was talking to some villagers in a café when one called him into the street to speak privately. “There are six or seven of us going to rob one of the tumuli,” the villager told him. “But my heart isn’t in it.” He gave Acar the name of the place and asked him to inform the local officials. Acar did. One of those officials was Kazim Akbiyikoglu, a local archaeologist and the curator of the Usak museum. The police assigned Akbiyikoglu to excavate there instead. He discovered a cache of treasures from the Phrygian kingdom, a civilization that followed the Lydians.

In New York, where the Met had muffled the initial rumors about a spectacular, possibly illegal, purchase, more rumors emerged in 1973. This time, the museum quietly leaked a story to the New York Times about the acquisition of 219 Greek gold and silver pieces, still being held in storage. The Times’s art critic John Canaday noted that the treasures dated to the sixth century B.C. and had reportedly been bought for about $500,000 by the Madison Avenue dealer John J. Klejman and sold to the museum in 1966, 1967, and 1968.The New York Post weighed in at this time, too, and asked Dietrich von Bothmer, the curator of the Greek and Roman department (where the pieces were kept), where the treasures came from. “You should ask Mr. J. J. Klejman that,” retorted von Bothmer. A few pieces from the collection had been shown the previous year in a survey exhibit, but the objects were not published in the catalog and remained in the museum’s storerooms. The director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, and von Bothmer believed that the museum had no obligation to determine whether the objects had been looted. The acquisition predated the UNESCO agreement of 1970, which banned the illegal export and transfer of cultural property, and both Klejman and the museum justified the purchase under the rules of the old code, whereby works whose provenance could not be specifically demonstrated as illegal could be legitimately purchased and sold.

Turkey, they would soon learn, felt differently.

Özgen Acar did not see the New York Times article, and anyway, he was looking for treasures from the Lydian civilization, not Greek. The years passed and the issue faded, though it remained in the back of his mind. Then in the early 1980s, Acar moved to New York to work for a different Turkish newspaper, Milliyet, and subsequently struck out on his own as a freelancer. One day in 1984 he was visiting the Met and was surprised to see on display 50 pieces that closely matched the description he had of the Lydian hoard. They were labeled simply “East Greek treasure.” This was no chance sighting. Acar had been watching the Met’s public exhibitions and scouring its catalogs all along, looking for some sign that the museum indeed had the pieces. “I was shocked,” he recalled. “The villagers who had taken them knew what the items were. By this time, I knew them like the lines of my own palm.”

This was the proof Acar had been waiting for. He flew back to Turkey and got an interview with the minister of education, showing him what he’d managed to gather over the years. That local villagers had secretly excavated tumuli outside of town and sold the contents to smugglers, who had sold a hoard of golden Lydian treasures to a dealer and that it had been purchased by no less an institution than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photographs from the Turkish police comparing pieces seized from looters in the 1960s to the pieces at the Met all but proved that the Met’s pieces were Lydian and came from the same area as the others. “If that all turns out to be true,” the minister responded, “then we will sue the Met.” Acar broke the story in a series of seven articles in Milliyet in 1986, the first of which carried the eight-column headline “Turks Want the Lydian, Croesus Treasures Back.”

In Acar’s investigation, the path of the theft became clear. In 1965 four farmers from the towns of Gure and Usak dug into a tumulus called Ikiztepe and struck it big—these were tombs of the Lydian nobility and upper class and were laid out traditionally with a body on a bed, surrounded by precious objects. Police learned of the theft and were able to recover some of the objects in 1966, and these were handed over to Turkish museums. But most of the artifacts had already left the country. The looters sold their find to Ali Bayirlar, a Turkish antiquities smuggler, who sold the hoard to J. J. Klejman, the owner of a Madison Avenue art gallery, and George Zacos, a Swiss dealer. The Met bought successive groups of the Lydian treasures from 1966 to 1970. As often happened in such cases, when word spread in Usak that several local farmers had successfully sold their loot, others went frantically burrowing in other nearby tumuli, Aktepe and Toptepe, where they found still more Lydian pieces: gold, silver, pieces of exquisite artistry, and wall paintings from the tombs themselves. In a statement to the police, one looter described the efforts expended to burrow into the tombs:

Author of LOOT: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, Sharon Waxman. (Joel Bernstein)
In 2006, it was discovered that the hippocampus had been stolen from its case and replaced with a fake. This counterfeit is now on display at the Usak museum. (Sharon Waxman / Times Books)
LOOT: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman. (Sharon Waxman / Times Books)
Özgen Acar, the Turkish journalist who has crusaded against smugglers, standing in front of a poster celebrating the return of the Lydian hoard. (Sharon Waxman)

We dug in turns for nine or 10 days....On the 10th day we reached the stones, each of which was almost 1.5 meters in height and 80 cms wide....It would be hard for five or six persons to lift one of them. ...We had tried to break the stones with sledgehammers and pokers, but were not successful. I exploded [the main entrance] using black powder.

The looters found a corpse that was, in the main, a pile of dust and a hunk of hair. But the gold and silver objects were undamaged. That one tomb held 125 pieces.

Meanwhile, the treasures purchased by the Met were presented to the museum’s acquisitions committee by Dietrich von Bothmer. It was the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it came to buying unprovenanced treasures. The pieces were unique, and they were exquisite: acorn-shaped pendants along one heavy golden necklace; bracelets with intricately carved lion heads at each end; carefully ribbed and sculpted silver bowls; a silver ewer with the handle in the form of a graceful human figure arching backward. And of course the masterpiece, a tiny golden brooch in the shape of a hippocampus—a horse with wings and a fish’s tail, representing land, water, and air. The horse, barely an inch and a half in height, had three sets of tassels of three hanging, golden braids, each braid ending in an intricate golden ball in the shape of a pomegranate. There was not another like it in the world. The Met paid $1.5 million for the treasures over several years.


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