x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hundreds of artworks in Turkish museum stolen and replaced with fakes

Critics say the theft of more than valuable 500 paintings and drawings reflects the government's general failure to protect the country's cultural heritage.

ISTANBUL // Inspectors in a state-run museum in Turkey's capital Ankara have raised the alarm after finding that hundreds of paintings by Turkish masters have been replaced by copies or simply vanished without a trace. "The museum has been looted," said Osman Altintas, an art professor from Ankara's Gazi University. He leads a team of experts sent by the culture ministry to investigate how many original paintings in the Ankara State Museum for Painting and Sculpture are actually still there and how many have been replaced by copies.

Speaking to Turkish media earlier this month, Dr Altintas put the number of vanished or copied paintings at about 400, or about 10 per cent of the total number of paintings in the museum. He estimated that the thefts may total 100 million lira (Dh238m). News reports this week said a previous inspection in 1996 found that 313 paintings had been missing even then. To make matters worse, Dr Altintas found that storage conditions for paintings in the museum were so poor that many works of art that were still there had been damaged or destroyed. "It would have been better if they had been stolen," he said.

Government officials said that in some cases, state institutions had helped themselves to precious works of art from the museum to adorn offices and reception halls. Critics say the looting of the museum, which went on for 30 years, is a sign of the country's failure to adequately protect its cultural heritage. Ertugrul Gunay, the culture minister, is the man in the eye of the storm. He promised to clear up the mess, but immediately had to admit that his own ministry had taken eight paintings from the museum. They were recently returned, as a good example to other ministries, as he put it. "From now on, we will only give reproductions to state institutions, not originals," the minister said.

Public attention focused on the disappearance of 13 works of Hoca Ali Riza (1858-1939), an artist renowned for his paintings and drawings of Istanbul whose works can fetch prices of tens of thousands of dollars. Omer Osman Gundogdu, the museum director, admitted that he did not even know when the missing charcoal drawings were stolen and replaced by copies. "It may have been five or 10 years ago," he said.

Mr Gundogdu also said the museum's system of surveillance cameras had been out of order for a long time. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the museum's storage and inventory system leaves much to be desired. "Our depot is a little crowded," the director said. Asked on television about reports that inspectors had found five empty frames in the museum, Mr Gundogdu said the pictures belonging to the frames "may turn up somewhere".

Omer Faruk Serifoglu, a writer who has edited a book about Hoca Ali Riza, said that of the 441 works of the artist that had been given to the state only 56 remained in official records. "It is unknown what happened to the rest," he told the Cumhuriyet newspaper. The investigation in Ankara was triggered by the discovery of a case of art robbery in a museum in the town of Usak, in the south-west of the country, in 2006. There, thieves replaced a 2,000-year-old golden brooch in the shape of a winged sea-horse with a copy. The theft went unnoticed for months, and the original has not been found. Earlier this year, the director of the museum was sentenced to 13 years in prison for being behind the crime. He says he is innocent.

Following the incident in Usak, the culture ministry ordered inspections in museums around the country. In the Ankara museum, an official was fired because he was suspected of being involved in the disappearance of three paintings, Mr Gunay told reporters. According to news reports, the police are still searching for 31 works of art that disappeared from the museum 13 years ago. "The museums are in the hands of Allah," one newspaper headline said.

Mr Gunay said paintings started to vanish from the Ankara museum after the military coup of 1980. "Back then, paintings were handed out as presents to high-ranking institutions" of the state, he said. A total of 649 works of art from the museum ended up in the buildings of other state institutions, according to the minister. So far, 121 paintings have been returned. The combination of a self-service mentality by state institutions, theft, as well as bad surveillance and management, speaks volumes about Turkey's relationship with its own cultural heritage, critics say. Last month, a local historian on the Datca peninsula in south-western Turkey alerted the media, saying authorities there had failed to protect the ruins of the ancient city of Knidos from art robbers. He said that only two guards were watching over Knidos in the winter months. Eight suspected robbers had been arrested within two weeks, he said.

"The number of security personnel in our museums is low," Tomur Atagok, a professor at the Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, told the NTV news channel. She added that Turkish museums also lacked an adequate number of art experts and an efficient system of record-keeping. "If there are experts in a museum, they have to know what kind of art works are in their own collection," she said. "There have to be records about where the originals go" when they leave the museum.

@Email:tseibert@thenational.ae