Turkey’s largest antiquities theft operation raids sites in 38 provinces

Well-organized antiquities theft ring smuggled stolen artifacts to auction houses in Europe and the US, authorities said.

THE TEMPLE of Apollo at Side. (photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)
THE TEMPLE of Apollo at Side.
(photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)

Turkish security forces on Tuesday raided sites in 38 provinces and issued arrest warrants for 143 people suspected of dealing in stolen antiquities from illegal excavations. It was one of Turkey’s largest antiquities theft operations ever.

Neither the number of people arrested nor the number of artifacts seized during the raids were released, the English-language Daily Sabah reported.

“Operation Heritage” was the culmination of a yearlong investigation of a well-organized antiquities theft ring by the Seydişehir district police anti-smuggling and organized crime unit in the Konya province.

Based on a four-level division of labor, the criminal band included people who illegally dug at sites throughout Turkey and then transferred the relics to “collectors.” The collectors forwarded them to the ringleaders, who were responsible for marketing the artifacts to foreign auction houses. A fourth group was in charge of smuggling the objects abroad, the report said.

The police operation also thwarted the sale by a Swiss auction house of a Byzantine Empire-era seal already smuggled from Turkey for 28,000 Swiss francs ($29,144), the report said.

 Tourists visit the Celsius Library in the ancient city of Ephesus near Izmir in the western Aegean region, Turkey August 5, 2018. Picture taken August 5, 2018.  (credit: REUTERS/SERTAC KAYAR) Tourists visit the Celsius Library in the ancient city of Ephesus near Izmir in the western Aegean region, Turkey August 5, 2018. Picture taken August 5, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/SERTAC KAYAR)

Turkish authorities were first alerted to the existence of the extensive theft operation when a truck driver, who later cooperated with the investigation, was caught trying to send 1,736 artifacts mainly from the Turkish province of Anatolia to an auction house in Britain via cargo through Austria.

Investigations into bank records revealed that the leader of the ring was being wired large sums of money from six auction houses in Europe and the US, as well as from other parties, and then distributing the money to other members.

Historical background

Turkey has a rich history of various civilizations and has archaeological sites from the Neolithic, Hittite, Seljuk, Greek, Roman and Ottoman periods.

While laws making it illegal to take ancient artifacts out of the country have been on the books since 1906, Turkey has only recently taken a more aggressive legal stance against antiquities smuggling. Last year, it recovered some 3,480 stolen artifacts, Daily Sabah reported.

Unlicensed excavations and failing to report the discovery of artifacts are also considered illegal.

In January, Turkey recovered 14 stolen artifacts from billionaire hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt after a two-year legal battle. Among them was the “Stag’s Head Rhyton” drinking vessel from 400 BCE, which is worth an estimated $3.5 million, according to news reports.