According to Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper, Turkey is blocking museum loans to some US and UK museums because they refuse to surrender objects excavated in Turkey in the past. In Britain, both the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museums are having problems in this regard in their efforts to create two 'encyclopedic' exhibitions.
The Turkish government wants the British Museum to return a carved stele (stone slab). Dating from the first century BC, it depicts King Antiochus I Epiphanes greeting Herakles-Verethragna. The stele was first recorded in 1882 when it was found in a field in Selik, near the town of Samsat in modern Turkey. The carved, sculpted relief, which is four feet high, had been used as an olive oil press and a large hole had been drilled through its centre. It was bought in 1911 by the archaeologist Leonard Woolley, who was digging in Carchemish with the permission of the Ottoman authorities. When the first world war broke out, the area around Carchemish was fought over. After the war, the archaeological store was in Syria, then administered by the French. In 1927, Woolley exported the stele with the permission of the French authorities and it was bought by the British Museum. Although a claim was made for the stele in 2005, it was not pursued by the Turkish authorities. In the meantime, loans between the two countries continued. Turkey’s claim to the stele was revived in January 2011 by its ambassador to London, Unal Cevikoz, after the appointment of a new director-general of cultural heritage and museums, Osman Murat Suslu.The BM was keen to resolve this issue, it recently organized an exhibition about the “Hajj” exhibition and since Mecca was controlled by the Ottoman empire from 1517 to 1916, there are many historic artefacts referring to this site held in Turkish museums. (It would be interesting to know whether the Saudis are asking for their surrender).
A British Museum spokeswoman told us last month: “The museum would be willing to discuss a loan of the stele, subject to the usual conditions. The trustees cannot consent to the transfer of ownership and firmly believe that it should remain part of the museum’s collection, where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience.” It is on display in the Near East Galleries.Bailey reports that the V&A is facing a similar problem over its planned exhibition “The Ottomans” intended to focus on the development of Ottoman art from the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the 19th century. For this, loans from Turkey would be essential. The show was "scheduled for 2014, then delayed a year, it is now on hold". Turkey has requested the surrender of the stone head of a child, representing Eros, from the 3rd century BC Sidamara sarcophagus (The Art Newspaper, October 2010, p9).
The head was removed in 1882 by the archaeologist Charles Wilson, and donated to the V&A by his family in 1933. The head is now in store at the V&A. The Sidamara sarcophagus, which is otherwise intact, is on display in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum. A V&A spokeswoman says that the head was legitimately acquired and the museum is not allowed to deaccession. “The offer of a long-term loan of the head to Turkey has been discussed,” she adds.Martin Bailey, 'Turkey blocks loans to US and UK', Art Newspaper, Published online: 01 March 2012