Turkish academic discovers smuggled artifacts at London museum

Published 22.01.2019 00:17

Taking a wrong elevator in London led Hayal Güleç to discover a trove of historical glazed tiles smuggled from Turkey.

Güleç, an art historian from Turkey's Süleyman Demirel University, was touring Victoria and Albert Museum when she took an elevator by mistake and ended up in a storage room. Seeing stacks of tiles, she looked closer and saw they resembled "çini" or glazed tiles commonly used in Ottoman-era architecture. Indeed, this was the case as she further investigated after talking to museum officials. She found out 44 tiles in the storage room were taken from historical buildings in Turkey. Güleç made more visits to the museum and examined tiles dating back to the 16th century, taking photos of 67 tiles from Ottoman times, and managed to prove that 44 were taken on separate dates from buildings in Turkey.

A letter she found in the same storage room shed light on how some tiles ended up in the prestigious museum. A letter in French penned by a seller who wanted to sell "tiles from Asia" to the museum was key in her investigation on the source of smuggling. The seller was the son of Leon Parville, a French restorer tasked by an Ottoman pasha in 1863 to restore an earthquake-hit mosque and tomb in the northwestern Turkish city of Bursa. The mosque and tomb are known for their exquisite tiles and Parville, long after he left the country, was accused of stealing some tiles during the restoration process. Güleç says Ottoman officials were unable to prove the case at the time, but the letter clearly shows Parville indeed took them with him.

Along with the tiles Parville took, Güleç discovered tiles taken from Topkapı Palace and from a mosque in Istanbul, from a tomb in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakır as well as from an ancient Armenian Catholic Church, all sold to the museum by different people. Güleç contacted the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry. It is not known whether Turkey would pursue retrieveal of smuggled artifacts. Since 2003, the Culture and Tourism Ministry has obtained 4,311 artifacts that were illegally exported from Turkey and is currently tracking down another 55 pieces in 17 countries. Many artifacts uncovered in Turkey are displayed in various famous museums throughout the world even though they were illegally smuggled out of the country. Legal procedures to retrieve these artifacts take a long time. Most recently, Turkey brought in the famed "Gypsy Girl" mosaic from a university in the United States, decades after the Roman-era artifact was smuggled from the southern city of Gaziantep.

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