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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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.

How could such a thing happen? The police examined the hippocampus on display; it was indeed a fake. The original weighed 14.3 grams. The one in the museum was 23.5 grams.

But the bigger bombshell did not drop for several more weeks, when the Culture Ministry announced that the director of the museum, Kazim Akbiyikoglu—the man who had worked diligently for the return of the hoard to Usak, who had gathered evidence and gone to the United States and examined the hoard—was suspected in the theft.

Acar’s life work had been betrayed. And by a friend. “Of course I was disappointed,” said Acar. “I was shocked.”

It was not possible, he thought. Kazim Akbiyikoglu was one of the most honest people he knew. Akbiyikoglu’s father was a member of parliament, and he himself was one of the most respected archaeologists in Turkey. He had worked tirelessly to accomplish the return of the Lydian hoard. He believed, like Acar, that history was beautiful where it belonged, near its find site. He was held in the highest regard in Usak. If he knew three honest men in the world, Acar thought, Kazim Akbiyikoglu was one of them.

Acar spoke to Orhan Düzgün, the government representative for monuments and museums. “You can’t be right,” he told him. “Kazim is an honest man.” Düzgün demurred. The evidence pointed to Akbiyikoglu, he said. Acar refused to accept it. He went on television to defend his friend against the accusations.

For two weeks, Acar couldn’t sleep. It was embarrassing enough to Turkey that any of these treasures so hard won, so publicly demanded, would be lost through clumsiness or corruption. Indeed, when the hoard moved to Usak, Acar had begged the ministry to install a proper security system. There was none, or none that worked. But the news about Akbiyikoglu—this was beyond mortification. For 20 years, the curator had fought with local smugglers, trying to expose them, get the police to take notice. The local mafia had been trying to get rid of him. He had devoted night and day to archaeology and the museum. But over time, these efforts had taken a toll on his personal life. Akbiyikoglu was gone a lot from home; his wife, with whom he had two children, had an affair with the mayor of Usak and divorced him, marrying her lover. Akbiyikoglu found himself at loose ends. His ex-wife and her new husband were involved in a freak traffic accident in 2005, with Akbiyikoglu’s two children in the back seat. The wife and her new husband were killed. After that, Acar lost touch with his old friend until he read the news in the paper.

Today, the file of the Lydian treasures takes up four boxes in Acar’s office. His friend sits in jail while the trial over the theft stretches on, with no end in sight. The masterpiece of the Lydian hoard is gone. Acar thinks that perhaps the thieves have melted it down, to destroy the evidence.

History has disappeared, from where it once belonged.

“From the Book LOOT: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman.


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