John Leonard ('The looting of Sardis', Athens News 24 May 2012) discusses the background to the removal of a shipload of artefacts from ancient Sardis, in western Asia Minor by American excavators in 1921-1922. According to Leonard, the action was:
symptomatic of a larger trend in which rapacious European and American individuals and institutions sought to take advantage of the late 19th- and early 20th-century decline of the Ottoman Empire to enrich private collections and national museums. Prominent among those figures advocating the removal of Greco-Roman and other antiquities from Ottoman lands were two Princeton professors, Howard Crosby Butler, Sardis’ first excavator, and Edward Capps, chair of the managing committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA)".
Archaeologist Fikret Yegul, discussed these events in a 2010 article, and:
The question that seems to lie at the heart of the looting of Anatolian archaeological sites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Yegul, is whether the moribund Ottoman Empire had any right to the rich cultural heritage that lay within its boundaries. “To cast the followers of Mohammed,” Yegul writes, “in the role of caretakers of classical culture - a culture all European nation states claimed as their own, with similar noises coming from across the [Atlantic] - was an anathema.” Indeed, the Ottomans’ “exotic” eastern empire “was seen as an illegitimate and barbaric power, especially as concerned dominion over the Greco-Roman heritage of Western Anatolia and Christian Jerusalem”.One might note that nothing much seems to have altered, American collectors and dealers still today voice such opinions in justification of their own no-questions-asked dealings with dugup artefacts from other people's territories. Leonard considers though that these artefact hunters: "may simply have been exploiting the Ottomans’ laxity, systemic corruption or current political troubles as an opportunity to benefit themselves, their employers or their favourite museums". There had been a long history of the mining of sites in Anatolia for displayable trophies for western museums:
The Ottomans’ revised antiquities law of 1884, which prohibited all cultural materials from leaving the country, had been a reaction to a host of past offences committed on a grand scale across western Asia Minor. As early as 1841 the English traveller Charles Fellows had shipped an entire Classical temple-tomb, the Nereid Monument from the southwestern town Xanthos, to the British Museum. Briton Charles Newton plundered the decorative sculpture of the 4th century BC Mausoleum of Halicarnassus for the same museum in the 1850s. Shortly after, in 1863, John Wood, an English engineer, removed whatever he could find of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, leaving only a gaping hole. Then, in the 1870s, Carl Humann spirited away to Berlin the bulky, intricately carved remains of the Hellenistic Altar of Zeus at Pergamon. The passage of the 1884 Ottoman antiquities law was perceived as a bothersome development by foreign excavators and collectors, but it did not stop them from continuing to export their archaeological discoveries. They simply found ways to circumvent the law, even - like David Hogarth at Priene in 1905 - appearing surprised that the new regulations applied to them. Exportations carried on, with Theodor Wiegand, director of the German Archaeological Institute at Istanbul, removing the entire Agora Gate at Miletus in 1908. The Austrians, too, led by Otto Bendorf, in the years 1896-1906, packed off to Vienna nearly everything they unearthed at Ephesus.Excavations by foreign missions in the region were brought to a halt by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, but when it ended, the digging gradually resumed, as did illegal exportation. According to Leonard, finds were taken to American museums from the Harvard University excavations at Colophon and Sardis in 1922. From the latter site the removed artefacts were enough to fill 56 crates ("enough to fill three railroad cars").
Upon learning of the clandestine shipment, the cultural authorities of the newly established Republic of Turkey immediately stopped the Americans’ excavation permit for Sardis and for all other Anatolian sites. A diplomatic resolution was finally reached after 53 of the original crates - including the 30 gold coins and 122 silver coins - were shipped back to Turkey in 1924, where they were inspected and divided up. Ultimately, 12 crates containing various artefacts and four gold coins arrived back in New York by the end of August 1925 - a “gift” from Turkey.Thus ended "an era when Anatolian antiquities were regularly used by both Turks and foreigners as currency with which one could purchase fame, professional success and political favour". The antiquities authorities of the new Turkish state struggled to compensate for centuries of Ottoman neglect of the region’s cultural heritage, between 1923 and 1926 they built seven new archaeological museums.