Turkey's stolen paintings and sculptures

Generally, there is little love and respect for ancient art works and cultural heritage in Turkey. The reason for this may be that despite the entire “Anatolian civilizations” dissertation, we consider everything before the Turks as to be belonging to “someone else.”

Generally, there is little love and respect for ancient art works and cultural heritage in Turkey. The reason for this may be that despite the entire “Anatolian civilizations” dissertation, we consider everything before the Turks as to be belonging to “someone else.” It could also be that we think we have an abundance of similar works and that ancient works are somehow endless. Or it could be our passion to change, renew and modernize. It is difficult to decide which. Most probably it is all at once; and most probably we do not like whatever is old. We always want to change; we want to get rid of the old one. Even if the “old stuff” is a priceless artwork, or hand written books; this is so. On the other hand, another reason that they are not effectively protected is that they are public property.

A report issued by the Supreme Court of Public Accounts (Sayıştay) in past weeks, reminded us once again of this severe situation. It was the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University’s Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum, which hosts almost all Turkish art history, that came up with the lost and stolen art works from its collection. According to the report, 404 works that are in the inventory are nowhere to be found. For 42 of them, it has been noted that they were either lost or stolen. In the same Sayıştay report, it was revealed that 440 handwritten books that were under the protection of Ankara University were nowhere. It is not known who took these books when and what they did with them. This was why the university had decided to drop them from its registry anyway. The general situation is quite hopeless, as you can imagine.

In fact, there is not much hope for the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum either. The report was brought to the attention of the public by Deniz Ayhan from daily Sözcü, but it was Deutsche Welle’s Burcu Karakaş who wrote the best story on the subject.

From this story, we learn that in 2019, within the scope of the “Code of Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets,” some 13,786 public cases were opened. Offenses such as demolishing old houses, stealing and selling historic artifacts are among these nearly 14,000 cases. Among them are perpetrators, those who have been reported and caught; such as the security personnel of Mimar Sinan University.

Burcu Karakaş has included, in her story, the opinion of Vasıf Kortun, a short-lived administrator at the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum. Kortun ruled out that the works have been stolen, but he pointed out another bitter fact. He said there were countless artifacts lent out to state institutions in the 1940s. Today, nobody knows what has happened to them. “They could be in the office of a parliamentary deputy or thrown away. The artifacts that are considered as lost are the ones that have been loaned externally with proper approvals,” he summed up.
The owner of these artworks is the Mimar Sinan University; as a matter of fact, a significant part of them have been produced there. They have been made by the professors of Mimar Sinan or by artists who have been trained by them. In other words, they are all a part of the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University’s own culture, tradition, its own identity. However, they cannot be adequately protected and looked after. The reason for this is there is no proper significance in our public system attributed to old and new art works, and cultural heritage. We also have not been able to develop a common approach on the value of these works either.

Architect-artist Cihat Burat wrote in his memoirs that one of his paintings was bought by the Ministry of Public Works, where he worked for many years. It was hung at one of the offices. Later, another executive was bothered that the painting included a church and cruelly tore up the landscape that had Notre Dame on it. Instead of putting it aside, he tried to destroy it.  

We assume that the collection of the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum has been lost in the endless corridors of the state, but a development that occurred right after the report was issued shows that the problem has another dimension. Two security guards of the museum stole old calligraphy plaques. They first tried to sell them, but when they could not, they tried to return them to the museum declaring they found them in an  antique shop .

Of course, the incident was solved, and the two were prosecuted. It is truly a difficult job that Mimar Sinan University has, even though it has built a new museum building at Fındıklı, İstanbul, but, somehow it has not been able to open it. Even its basic security issues are not solved; it has been robbed by its own security personnel. 

Turkey has been busy for weeks with “much important other things.” There were buildings that collapsed during the earthquake, a society which did not care much about the pandemic that has peaked, executives avoiding taking the necessary measures and a foreign currency crisis rapidly impoverishing the country. Among all these, of course, art works and cultural heritage cannot make their way up to the headlines. Most of us think that we are somehow different from other Western countries because we have an intense agenda and for this reason we cannot focus on cultural issues. We may secretly and slightly be proud of this situation when we say, “The events that happen in Turkey in one week will not be happening in Denmark in one year.” We continue reproducing the cliché “Our country is different.” We somehow miss that the main problem stems from the fact that from the most sophisticated to the ordinary person immersed in the troubles of making a living, the majority of us are not interested in culture.


July 13, 2021 Solace from tensions