Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Cover-up of Paintings Theft in Turkey's Museums

I suppose I'd better cover this as I am sure the 'quis custodiet' dealers' lobbyists in the US will with their usual calls to empty foreign museums onto the US market.

Turkish newspapers (notably the Milliyet on Tuesday) have uncovered a disturbing story. Back in 2010 the Turkish government initiated a study by a commission under by the Culture and Tourism ministry into the holdings of Ankara’s State Art and Sculpture Museum, following the discovery of the theft of 13 items from the Museum's reserve collection. The commission examined the inventories and discovered that more than 200 art works have disappeared from the collections:
both paintings and sculptures were swapped for forged replicas over a series of years by a crafty ring of criminals and government officials. The ministry attempted and temporarily succeeded in keeping the report secret, presumably due to the enormous scale of the operation, which reveals unsightly details of the lack of oversight within the Turkish government regarding national artifacts as well as blatant illegal acts by government officials themselves. [...] This process has continued for over 30 years, beginning with the military coup in 1980, with the State Art and Sculpture Museum’s director Omer Osman Gundogdu indicating an awareness of what was happening by claiming in 2010 that the Ali Riza works had likely been missing for five to ten years. According to Osman Gundogdu, security cameras within the Museum rarely if ever function and its storage facilities are so cramped that paintings often go missing without anyone noticing.
The missing objects include works by prominent Turkish artists such as Şevket Dağ, Şefik Bursalu, Hikmet Onat and Zühtü Müridoğlu, as well as sketches by Ottoman-era landscape painter Hoca Ali Rıza. According to the report, the authenticity of an additional 30 works has been deemed “highly suspicious”. I am not entirely clear whether the (reports of the) report are adequately distinguishing outright theft (for example to then sell the items) and the movement of paintings outside the museum to other government buildings - as happens in many countries, including the UK (when stuff went missing), the US White house for example, Poland and other places. When it is properly documented and the objects afforded adequate security and display conditions, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Where the process of keeping tracks of it all and monitoring are faulty the results are tragic. So I wonder if the reports are not to some extent discussing something more of this type: 
Shockingly, the report indicates that many of the swaps were exercised by officials within the government, bringing the authentic artworks to various ministries and unauthorized buildings for decoration. Among those officials is culture minister Ertugrul Gunay, who admitted to taking eight paintings for their offices and subsequently returning them in hopes that others would follow suit. 
Hürriyet for example says that although 202 objects are "presently missing from Ankara’s State Art and Sculpture Museum", that the report claims that "46 pieces from the museum’s catalog were stolen and replaced with fake replicas" (with the additional information about suspicions of the authenticity of the additional 30 works). The newspaper highlights the comments of Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay who pointed out that the museum was especially poorly protected especially after the 1980 coup.
 “The Ankara State Art and Sculpture Museum was founded in April 1980 and left significantly unattended and managed inadequately as a result of the Sept. 12 [1980] coup. During this time, the museum records were not kept, healthy inventory work was not done and necessary minimum precautions were not taken,” he said. During the 2000s, the museum was closed as part of a restoration project, he also said. 
Now the findings of the commission are public knowledge, the Culture and Tourism Ministry should publish details of which works of art, allowing those that have come onto the market to be tracked down.

Is this an argument for emptying Turkey's national collections onto the US (or any other) market, or is it an argument for sorting out similar problems worldwide where they appear? Even in the UK and USA museum inventorying leaves a lot to be desired, not to mention storeroom problems. Does this mean we should reduce museums to showcases for a few glittery objects and just dump the rest from the reserve collections en masse on the global "art" market? I think not.

Alexander Forbes, ' Turkish Government Officials Complicit in Theft of More Than 200 Artworks From State Museums', Artinfo August 7, 2012
Anon, 'Ministry admits grand theft from art museum', Hurriyet Daily News August 8, 2012
Vignette: Wikipedia

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