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November 12, 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014 - ,, No comments

Ankara, Turkey: Anonymous caller breaks open case in art theft investigation at the State Art and Sculpture Museum

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO

In August 2012 Hurriyet Daily News highlighted a report produced by Turkey's Culture and Tourism Ministry that identified hundreds of works of art as missing from the State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara. Some of the works stolen were from highly valued Turkish artists such as Şevket Dağ, Şefik Bursalu, Zühtü Müridoğlu, and Hikmet Ona.  Experts and common citizens alike complained that the museum, like many in many countries, did not have an adequate inventory system in place.  This vulnerability, it was partially reasoned, worked in the thieves favor when they switched the original paintings with inferior fake ones. 
Image Rights: Ankara Scribbler

At the time the thefts were announced Hurriyet stated "A recent report by the ministry, which was later shelved away from public view to avoid a possible backlash, claims that 46 pieces from the museum's catalog were stolen and replaced with fake replicas........The authenticity of 30 more art works is also "highly suspicious," according to the report."

When the thefts were discovered the Culture Ministry was forced to examine 5,000 works of art in the collection.  Their findings indicated that a total of 302 objects were stolen, elaborating that 256 of the paintings/objects were listed as completely missing and 46 as having been replaced with forged replica, including 13 charcoal sketches by Hacı Ali Rıza.

Turkish news sites today report that arrests have been made as a result of an anonymous caller who spoke directly with the Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay, breaking open the Ankara art theft investigation and leading to the arrest of three of 18 tentative suspects involved in the case.

Hurriyet Daily News reported that "those arrested are the alleged leader of the gang Ahmet Sarı, the security official of the museum Veli Topal, and antique dealer Mete Aktuna"

The news site went on to add that the thefts and forgery involve an organized network of criminals who lifted works of art from the museum primarily between 2005 and 2009 selling them through middlemen and fine art dealers, sometimes even in auction houses to unsuspecting buyers.

Hurriyet reported that “The female deputy director of the museum proposed Sarı to sell the original works in the museum’s depot. One included Hikmet Onat’s oil painting. Sarı sold it to an antique dealer in Nişantaşı for $210,000 and the antique dealer sold it to a famous businessman for $350,000. The painting is still in his collection. Another painting by Vecihi Bereketoğlu was also sold to an auctioneer and the auctioneer sold it to the son of a famous businessman,” According to the anonymous informant the crime syndicate stole the paintings and works of art from the museum between 2005 and 2009.

Dunya Bulteni, a Turkish language news site reports that the during the enterprise two oil paintings were sold for 10 thousand (currency not indicated) as well as numerous other museums objects, including one for 210 thousand dollars."
The fact that this group of criminals were able to operate so freely and for so long within Turkish borders and within the legitimate art market without detection reflects the country's heritage vulnerability as a trafficking conduit not just for its own works of art but also for objects originating from nearby nations such as Syria and Iraq where trafficking and looting have been reported. 

The Republic of Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself has stated  

"Terrorism in contemporary terms needs a strong financial support, high tech weapons and an expensive organization. There is no doubt that today’s terrorists are better financed and better utilize the financial institutions than before. There is a close connection between terrorism and organized crime. Illicit sources such as narcotics and human trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering or extortion are major revenue sources for terrorist groups. However, it is a well known fact that terrorist organizations resort beside illegal means to legal means to finance their criminal activities. Now, it has become clear that legal businesses and charitable organizations can also be utilized by terrorists for funding their activities."