These objects are part of the heritage of European civilisation and therefore more properly belong in Britain than they do in the victory trophy collection of an invading Asiatic power.
Turkey has become only the second country after Greece to lay formal claim to an object in the British Museum, and is also demanding the return of a marble head in the Victoria & Albert Museum.Source: The Times (£)
The Turkish Government wrote to the British Museum in January to demand the return of an unprepossessing carved stone slab from the 1st century BC, known as the Samsat Stela, which is on display in Room 52 of the museum.
The 1.3m (4.3ft) basalt stone is neither as well known nor as attractive as the Elgin Marbles, the most celebrated outstanding restitution case on the museum’s books, but it is now part of a new frontline in international museum politics.
The stele was discovered in 1882 in a field near Samsat in the south of modern-day Turkey. The slab, which depicts the ancient King Antiochus I greeting Herakles, had previously been used as an olive press and had a large hole drilled through the centre. It was bought by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, the museum’s director of excavations, and became part of its collection in 1927.
In the past two years Turkey has stepped up claims to objects in museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris, the State Museums of Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
While many of the claims are longstanding, they have been revived with a fresh vigour since the appointment of Osman Murat Suslu, a director-general of cultural heritage and museums, in 2010. Turkey has started refusing loan requests to museums with disputed objects, affecting exhibition planning.
The V&A has had to postpone a show on Ottoman culture. The British Museum is trying to work out how to mount an exhibition about the Eastern Mediterranean in the time of Tutankhamun without what would have been pivotal loans from Turkey.
Last week Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, wrote to the Turkish authorities laying out the museum’s case for retaining the stele. According to the museum: “At no point between 1927 and 2005 have the Turkish authorities, who were fully aware of the stele’s location, suggested that it had been improperly acquired or should be returned.”
As with the Elgin Marbles, the museum has offered to loan the stele to Turkey for temporary exhibition if Turkey recognises the British Museum’s ownership of the object.
Meanwhile, the V&A is waiting to hear Ankara’s response to its offer of an indefinite loan of a marble head of a child that was excavated and brought to Britain in 1882. It dates to the 3rd century AD was removed from the Sidamara Sarcophagus that is now in Turkey.
Privately, the V&A is more sympathetic to the Turkish claim than the British Museum because of the circumstances of how the head found its way into the collection, but it is forbidden by law to transfer ownership of the object.
In each case, the disputes have a distinct political flavour. There is suspicion inside both institutions that individuals within the Turkish Government are more interested in publicising the disputes for political purposes than finding a resolution.
A senior source at the V&A said: “The ball is now very much in their court and we really don’t know what’s going to happen.”