Dietrich von Bothmer asked what we should do if any damaging evidence were found that our East Greek treasure had been excavated illegally and smuggled out of Turkey....I was exasperated. “We all believe the stuff was illegally dug up,” I told him....“For Christ’s sake, if the Turks come up with the proof from their side, we’ll give the East Greek treasure back. And that’s policy. We took our chances when we bought the material.”
On May 29, 1987, the Republic of Turkey filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, contending that several hundred artifacts had been illegally excavated and illegally exported from the country in the 1960s. This was a spectacularly bold move by a country with no track record in suing major institutions in foreign countries. Would it work? Turkey, represented by the American lawyers Harry Rand and Lawrence Kaye, was betting that the American justice system would judge the evidence fairly. Predictably, the Met filed a motion for dismissal, claiming it was far too late to sue for artifacts it had bought in good faith. But in 1990 Judge Vincent L. Broderick accepted the Turkish position. In pretrial discovery, the Met allowed a team of outside scholars to inspect the treasures for the first time. Among those who came was Kazim Akbiyikoglu of the Usak museum, who gave an affidavit providing the evidence that he had of the treasures’ origin. The Met’s defenses crumbled fairly quickly. Wall paintings were measured and found to fit the gaps in the walls of one tomb. Looters cooperating with the investigation described pieces they had stolen that matched the cache at the Met. The case was covered prominently in the press, and it was beginning to look like a black eye for the museum.
Seeking to salvage things, museum officials tried to negotiate a settlement. Under one plan, the Met would admit that the treasures were Turkish and would propose a kind of joint custody, in which the hoard—now known to be 363 pieces—would spend five years in New York and five years in Turkey. The Turks dispute this version, saying that the offer was to return merely a small portion of the hoard. Around Christmas 1992, the Met’s president, William Luers, and its director, Philippe de Montebello, traveled to Turkey to work out this deal with the minister of culture, Fikri Sa˘glar. But the minister refused to meet with them.
It was game over. Facing an imminent trial, the Met agreed in September 1993 to return the Lydian hoard, explaining in a press release: “Turkish authorities did provide evidence that most of the material in question may indeed have been removed clandestinely from the tombs in the Usak region, much of it only months before the museum acquired it. And second, we learned through the legal process of discovery that our own records suggested that some museum staff during the 1960s were likely aware, even as they acquired these objects, that their provenance was controversial.”
This was an astonishing admission by a major American museum. The Met had bought pieces that within a matter of weeks had gone directly from a group of looters, through middlemen, to the storerooms of the museum. Documents proved that the museum officials knew that these pieces were likely looted and essentially hid them for some 20 years. Nonetheless, the museum resisted Turkey’s demands for more than a decade and fought the lawsuit for six years, until finally acknowledging its actions.
Back in Turkey, the triumph was complete. Acar’s campaign had been taken up by the local Usak region, and the museum curator Kazim Akbiyikoglu—now his dear friend and ally—adopted the cause of stopping looting in his region. Acar’s slogan, “History is beautiful where it belongs,” became a poster that was found in libraries, classrooms, city buildings, and shops. The local Usak newspaper beat the drum for the return of the Lydian hoard. In October 1993, just a month after the Met’s concession, the artifacts arrived back in Turkey amid great celebration.
The lawsuit emboldened Turkey to chase other objects that had been taken improperly. The government pursued the auction house Sotheby’s for trafficking in looted artifacts and sued for objects being held in Germany and London. It also went after the Telli family, a ring of smugglers—through whom a billion dollars’ worth of stolen antiquities flowed—that Acar had written about in Connoisseur magazine. (The family sued Acar; he was acquitted. He then got death threats. He ignored them. He later learned that the plan was to kidnap him, tie him up, and ship him with an oxygen tank, to a Swiss museum.) The Getty Museum relinquished a sculpture from a Perge sarcophagus that had been sliced up and sold by looters. A German foundation gave up other portions of the same sculpture. Turkey became known as a leader in the battle against looting. By the latter half of the 1990s, the looters were on the defensive. Smugglers looked to work elsewhere. Turkey’s lawsuits made a clear statement of its intention to assert the country’s cultural rights.
For two years the treasures of the Lydian hoard were displayed in the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara, before being transferred in 1995 to Usak, to an aging one-room museum in the town, whose population had grown to one hundred thousand. Not only was the return of the Lydian hoard a source of undeniable pride in Usak but it also made restitution a popular cause in neighboring communities that once were centers of the ancient world. Even the looters came to regret their actions. On a visit to Usak in the late 1990s, Acar took three of the confessed grave robbers to the museum. “They were crying and said, ‘How stupid were we. We were idiots,’ ” he recalled with pride. “We created a consciousness.”
But that consciousness didn’t translate into broad viewership of the hoard. In 2006 the top culture official in Usak reported that in the previous five years, only 769 people had visited the museum. That may not be so terribly surprising, since only about 17,000 tourists had visited the region during that time, he said. Back in New York, the Met was unimpressed. “Those who’ve visited those treasures in Turkey is roughly equal to one hour’s worth of visitors at the Met,” Harold Holzer, the museum’s spokesman, remarked dryly.
That was bad enough, but the news soon turned dire. In April 2006 the newspaper Milliyet published another scoop on its front page: the masterpiece of the Lydian hoard, the golden hippocampus—the artifact that now stood as the symbol of Usak, its image published every day on the front page of the local newspaper—was a fake. The real hippocampus had been stolen from the Usak museum and replaced with a counterfeit.