Sassounian: Turkey Claims Non-Turkish Antiquities by Intimidating Foreign Museums

The Turkish government has recently embarked on an aggressive campaign, pressuring a large number of European and American museums to return antiquities that were taken out of the country during Ottoman times.

While it is understandable that nations would want to recover ancient relics that were part of their patrimony, in the Turkish case there are certain anomalies that merit closer scrutiny.

If these valuable relics were taken out of Turkey in recent times without proper authorization, one could argue that the Turkish government is perhaps entitled to them, even though they emanate from ancient civilizations that predate the conquest of that part of the world by Ottoman Turks.

It is ironic that the country claiming these antiquities is one of history’s biggest looters and pilferers of other nations’ cultural heritage, such as churches, monasteries, monuments, and schools belonging to Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. One must have clean hands before having the audacity to accuse others of theft.

Most shocking of all, the Turkish government is preparing a lawsuit against the British Museum in the European Court of Human Rights based on Article 1 of the First Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states, “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.”

According to an article by Ceylan Yeginsu in the International Business Times (IBT), using human rights laws to recover antiquities is a novel concept never before used by any country. It is incredible that one of the biggest violators of human rights in the world is getting ready to sue the British Museum ostensibly for violating the rights of Turkish citizens.

Turkey is planning to file this lawsuit on Jan. 30 to reclaim the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, “one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.” The British Museum, however, argues that it had not misappropriated this ancient relic. Olivia Rickman, the press and PR manager of the museum, told IBT that the sculptures from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in the museum’s collection were acquired in 1846, 1857, and 1859. Rickman further states that “these pieces were acquired during the course of two British initiatives, both with firmans [legal permits issued by the Ottoman authorities] that granted permission for the excavation of the site and removal of the material from the site (1857 and 1859) and Bodrum Castle (1846) to the British Museum.”

IBT quoted Charlotte Woodhead, an expert in cultural heritage law at the University of Warwick in England, stating that she was not aware of human rights legislation ever being used before to reclaim such objects. “If a claim is brought before the European Court of Human Rights, it will be interesting to see on what basis it is argued and also to see what the outcome is,” Woodhead stated.

Turkey has also used an Ottoman law banning the export of artifacts in order to claim ownership of ancient artifacts from major museums around the globe, such as the Louvre in Paris, the Getty in Los Angeles, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks. If Turkey can claim Ottoman-era assets, then it must be held responsible for Ottoman-era liabilities such as plunder, territorial conquest, and genocide!

By filing such questionable lawsuits, Turkey’s real intent is to intimidate foreign museums into returning the claimed artifacts. If the museums do not cave in to Turkish pressure and refuse to turn over these items, it would be interesting to see if the Turkish government would still go ahead with its threatened lawsuits. The big risk for Turkey is that if the courts reject its claims, no museum would ever agree to return any of the demanded antiquities.

However, should a foreign museum wish to return an ancient relic to Turkey, it should make it conditional on the Turkish government officially identifying the true origin of the object, such as Hittite, Roman, Greek, Armenian, or Assyrian. This is necessitated by the fact that Turkey has omitted all references to the origin of ancient Armenian churches and monuments from inscriptions presently affixed to the entrance of these sites.

Turkish efforts to reclaim antiquities from the world’s great museums provide a unique opportunity for Armenians to publicize Turkey’s misuse and outright destruction of thousands of Armenian churches, monasteries, schools, cemeteries, and castles.

Armenians should petition the European Court of Human Rights, objecting to the return of any artifacts to Turkey, unless its government makes a legally binding pledge to preserve and identify all remaining Armenian monuments on its territory. The next step would be to demand that Turkey return the more than 2,000 churches to the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul.

Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh one billion dollars of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.


  1. Turkey claims non-Turkish genes as Turkish.
    Turkey claims non-Turkish land as Turkish.
    Turkey claims non-Turkish arts as Turkish.

    Who knows what “Turkey” even is? It’s a little bit of stolen bits from Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Arabs, Persians, etc.

  2. Even though most, if not all artifacts in question are not “Turkish”, and beside assertion that Turks are thieves themselves, the fact remains that these artifacts belong to the land currently known as Turkey. These artifacts were STOLEN and belonged to ancient civilizations that lived in Asia Minor. The British, the French, the US, etc. have no right over these stolen goods. They profit off and attract visitors to their museums with these stolen artifacts. If any nation has the right over the artifacts of these civilizations long gone, it is Turkey. The ancient homeland of the original owners of the artifacts. Now the grounds on which Turkey is suing the British is a bit silly yes, but I repeat what I said earlier. Turkey has more of a right then the British do to those artifacts. Regarding identification of these things in a Turkish museum, I have to be honest, I’ve been to many museums in Turkey, I’m not sure if I remember seeing anything labeled as Armenian. Greek, Roman, Hittite, even Assyrian, but very few if any Armenian.

    • WRONG.
      The land currently known as “Turkey” was formed through illegal means, specifically genocide. That makes all claims of this country illegitimate. Additionally, if Turkey is admitting it is the successor state of the Ottoman empire, its first order of business is to also take responsibility for its genocide of the Armenians. Besides, there is no proof these museums “stole” anything. I seriously even doubt the Ottoman empire has rights to ancient artifacts. If anyone does it is Greece and Armenia. Today’s Turkey has stolen from all the massacred Armenians their properties, bank accounts and the like, not to mention the population of Turkey doing the same while the Armenians were marching to their deaths.

      This brings us to the second point. Today two people exist which ALL these “Ottoman” or “Turkish” or whatever incorrect term you’d like to apply, actually do have a connection to: those two people are Greeks and Armenians. And both of these countries exist, even though their rightful lands are under occupation. In this regard, any artifacts that are Phrygian, Urartian and even Hittite belong to AREMNIA. These are the ancestors of Armenians, not Turks.

    • Գողը գողից գողացավ, Աստված տեսավ, զարմացավ.

      (loose translation: one thief stole from another thief: God saw it, and was surprised).

  3. “If these valuable relics were taken out of Turkey in recent times without proper authorization, one could argue that the Turkish government is perhaps entitled to them, even though they emanate from ancient civilizations that predate the conquest of that part of the world by Ottoman Turks.”

    One- there is no IF. They were STOLEN from Ottoman Turkey. Many of these relics do not belong to Ottoman times and are not Turkish, but they belonged to civilizations (ancient and current) that lived in what is now known as Turkey for centuries. Those artifacts belong in Turkey- irrespective of Turkey’s record of stealing and looting- whatever that has to do with the issue at hand. Turkey has more of a right to these artifacts than the British or French of Americans ever will. When it comes to proper identification, if you visit a Turkish museum you will find almost everything properly identified and in fact you’ll find few Turkish artifacts in some museums. I say ALMOST because I have rarely, if ever, seen something identified as Armenian in a museum. Greek, Hittite, Roman, etc.- yes.

    • RVDV
      Your missing the point. Do you not find it ironic that Turkey, that was created mostly from the genocide and theft of others wealth and land are now wanting to reclaim their “rightful heritage relics”?

      What a bunch of nonsense. That’s akin to saying that if i killed you and stole your house and now living within it, that i would somehow have full rights to everything that once might have belonged to the original owners that someonelese took at some point?

    • I see it more as claiming back what rightfully belongs on those lands, and what was wrongly taken during Ottoman times. It is, of course, ironic that a country that did everything it could to get rid of its native population now wants relics of those native population and others back to where they belong. I don’t, however, believe it necessary to bring everything concerning Turkey in any way back to the Armenian genocide. To put it simply: Trojan artifacts, which, as Greek in nature as they are, should still belong in Troy- which happens to be modern day Turkey. Doesn’t mean Turks have an indisputable claim to it, it’s just where Troy happens to be, giving Turkey a valid claim to ask for stolen artifacts to be returned. Some have already complied:

  4. “If Turkey can claim Ottoman-era assets, then it must be held responsible for Ottoman-era liabilities such as plunder, territorial conquest, and genocide!”

    Ding ding ding ding ding ding. Good writing Mr. Sassounian.

  5. If Turkey is successful with such a ridiculous lawsuit, likewise, Armenia should take Turkey to the same court and claim all such artifacts of the Phrygians, Urartians, Hittites, etc. because there is ample historical proof that Armenians are their descendants. In eastern Anatolia, until the arrival of Turks no other people had a major presence besides Greeks in the west and Armenians in the east. Greece should likewise also take Turkey to court for the same reasons. There is no limit to Turkish audacity and spoiled brat behavior . These impostor, Central Asiatic invaders need to be put in their place.

    • Hagop D:

      there is no proof that Armenians are descendants of Phrygians.
      It is one of the false hypothesis advanced by Denialist Turcophile pseudo-scientists to justify Turkic invasion, conquest and occupation of Armenian Highlands.

      The argument being that if Armenians are invaders from the Balkans, “….then we, Turks, have the right to invade and occupy somebody else’s land.”
      [The Phrygians (Phruges or Phryges) were an ancient Indo-European people, initially dwelling in the southern Balkans]

      The fake hypothesis that Phrygians are ancestors of Armenians has been debunked long ago.

      Historians and scientists in RoA have conclusively proven that Armenians are indigenous to the Armenian Highlands. Armenian presence has been traced via hard records (rock writings) to about 5000 years as of now. Work continues.

    • Avery, I am aware of that point, and I agree that the Turks and their lobby are using it to justify their invasion and unfortunately it seems some of our historians fell into their trap, and I suspect some entity outside of the Turks is behind it as well… but this brings up some points regarding our history too. Herodotus may have stated that the Phrygians were an Armenian group, but he also did not know whether the Phrygians migrated out of Armenia in the first place. I am not aware of a study whether in a further time period if the Phrygians did not migrate from the Armenian Highlands to north, to west, to south and back east to the Armenian Highlands.

      My point was, all such groups that existed in Anatolia may be classified as Armenian origin, both indigenous and (supposedly) newcomers, whomever they may be, through the ethno-genesis of the region. This includes, Phrygians, Hittites, Urartians, Hurrians, Mitanni, even the Etruscans that migrated to Italy and other groups. In fact we are related even to the Sumerians.

      I say this for the simple fact that in our territory no other group existed in antiquity until certain Islamic groups invaded Armenia starting in the 7th century. Even during Roman invasion and influence, Armenia was still Armenia, and in this respect my conclusion that all such artifacts of the region belong to the Armenian nation.

    • Why? Do the British have the right to keep them? Turkey doesn’t ask them because they are Turkish, it asks them because those artifacts belong to the land where Turkey resides.

  6. Everything currently within the borders of today’s Turkey was achieved by conquest, theft and thru the conscious elimination of almost all of the original, indigenous natives. In fact, most Turkish monuments, whether they are Selcuk or Ottoman, were built by Armenian architects and stonemasons. Turks know this very well. Over the centuries, many of the sultans often gave important parts of Anatolia’s ancient cultural heritage away, precisely because they didn’t have much regard for such treasures and did not see the need to either protect or conserve them. So, they have set their own precedent and have alot of nerve holding outsiders responsible or asking for them to be returned. In addition, since 1923, the Turkish republic has actively supported the destruction of native monuments all over Turkey. It is only recently, with the promise of tourism, that they have changed course (only slightly), and offered to ‘restore’ Armenian monuments. Maybe Turkey should offer to return Greek artifacts to Greece, and all Armenian artifacts to Armenia, including all Urartia/Hittite items? Maybe Armenia should demand them? At the very least, they should demand honest and accurate identification in all Turkish museums, where the word ‘Armenian’ doesn’t seem to exist…despite its historic legacy as the original Armenian homeland.

  7. The only stuff that belongs to the Turks is stuff from Mongolia! The greek, assryian, Armenian, etc don’t belong to them!

  8. My only quibble is with the first sentence. This is hardly news, the Turks have been at this for decades. The most egregious case I can recall is the Elmali Hoard of ancient Greek coins, not even ONE of which was Turkish. The hoard was discovered about 25 years ago by peasants with a metal detector, Many of the coins were bought by a private collector in the USA, who was forced to relinquish the coins. On top of that, Turks are among the world’s most notorious coin and antiquity forgers, making fakes in little workshops all day long and peddling them to curiosity seekers.

  9. tokado, how about Britain by pass Turkey and return all stolen Museum items to real owner of the land, Armenia. Any item own by British Museum, from Asia Minor, belong to Armenian nation, the rest belong to Greeks!

    I wonder sometimes, what do you people have to show in your Museum since 1453, the fall of Byzantine?? All you have to show, bloody color of a sword, Allah’s power, killing, rape, genocides, and destruction of others civilization and monuments.

    And I wonder since when all of sudden Turks become art or museum lovers, where basic human rights does not exist in Turkey, even today!! The only items, that Turks can claim from British Museum, Sultan Mohammed’s (Mehmet ) silver sword and his turban!!

    • I repeat for you again. They belong to the land not to people. Turkey should acquire all stolen items from its lands and restore them to their original locations.

      “And I wonder since when all of sudden Turks become art or museum lovers, where basic human rights does not exist in Turkey, even today!!”

      Nonsense… There is no correlation between those 2 things.

    • Tokado,

      What does it mean it belongs to the land? What happens if the land ceases to have people? Are you going to have ghost museums? I do not think it belongs to the land it belongs to people who have owned it. There will come a day when genocidal Turkey will be requested to return the loot she obtained through murder.

    • It is very rare that the land ceases to have people. There are temples, churches in the middle of nowhere, on top of hills and mountains. You don’t think that we should disassemble and take them from their original location and bring to the cities for display? Small things like pottery, coins, etc found in remote places can be brought to museums if it is not possible to give proper care in their original locations.

    • “It is very rare that the land ceases to have people.”

      It is possible for the land to cease having people. for example if for different reasons the land becomes highly radioactive and thus inhabitable, people can be transferred to different country/area. What should happen to their cultural treasures? Should be given to people who owned them.

      “There are temples, churches in the middle of nowhere, on top of hills and mountains. You don’t think that we should disassemble and take them from their original location and bring to the cities for display?”

      Frankly, I do not think that it should be dissembled and taken away from their original location. They should stay where they are. Tourists can visit them if they are interested in seeing them. I as a tourist will not spend my time and money to see some reassembled temples and churches.

  10. Arabs who visit Turkey say they have stollen
    every thing belonged to Arabia
    about Nabi Mohammad
    His Hair His Sword…etc
    And put in their Museums…
    And charge the visitors …

  11. Here’s a prime example – the Pergamon altar – essentially given away by the sultan (from Wikipedia):

    The Pergamon Altar is a monumental construction built during the reign of King Eumenes II in the first half of the 2nd century BC on one of the terraces of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon in Asia Minor.

    The structure is 35.64 meters wide and 33.4 meters deep; the front stairway alone is almost 20 meters wide. The base is decorated with a frieze in high relief showing the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods known as the Gigantomachy. There is a second, smaller and less well-preserved high relief frieze on the inner court walls which surround the actual fire altar on the upper level of the structure at the top of the stairs. In a set of consecutive scenes, it depicts events from the life of Telephus, legendary founder of the city of Pergamon and son of the hero Heracles and Auge, one of Tegean king Aleus’s daughters.

    In 1878, the German engineer Carl Humann began official excavations on the acropolis of Pergamon, an effort that lasted until 1886. The excavation was undertaken in order to rescue the altar friezes and expose the foundation of the edifice. Later, other ancient structures on the acropolis were brought to light. Upon negotiating with the Turkish government (a participant in the excavation), it was agreed that all frieze fragments found at the time would become the property of the Berlin museums.

    The German government arranged for a license to dig in Turkey and in September 1878 excavations began, headed by Humann and Conze. By 1886, large parts of the acropolis had been investigated and in the following years also scientifically appraised and published. Based on an agreement[17] between the Ottoman Empire and the German government, starting in 1879 the relief panels from the Pergamon Alter along with some other fragments came to Berlin and into the possession of the Collection of Antiquities.

    In other words, it was all done in plain view, with the sultan’s permission – which means Turkey was complicit in the removal of this and many other artifacts, many of which were peddled away as influential, regal gifts. To demand them back at this point is patently ridiculous.

  12. Such effort is kind of like Talaat’s incredulous request that shocked Ambassador Morgenthau for the deported / slain / yet-to-die Armenians to collect on their life insurance polices with American insurance companies.

  13. Bravo Sella,
    Your truly sensational reasoning above is not only logically correct,but also scientifically. No land has so far created Works of Art!!!
    The people who lived on the land have…that simple.
    I appreciate your delving into Nazi Return of objects ,that belonged to Jews-photo attached,in Pairs, or somewhere in France.I wonder when will muster up enough clout like the Jews to have ours returned to us.
    (We need to re-organize the Diaspora(s)
    The Day will come when we shall get all artifacts,precious statues ,such as Anahit´s for our Museum in Armenia.Hopefully in the United Armenia.
    However, I also believe those who unlawfully deal in the purchase of stolen such artifacts are responsible too.Any ancient artifact discovered on any land(of a country) should very naturally be considered as to pertain to the PEOPLE who lived there and created these.

  14. The music ,rather nostalgic and very Armenian-Taghsot-sorrowful..
    But I did find where to sign, clicked on the whole, but don´t know if that was what was required to do.

  15. Turkey has no rights in antiquity in the area…always have been the destroyers of other cultures monuments, in order to establish there Hegemony!

  16. These outer Mongolian invaders are completely laughable. You have only to look at the most recent land grab in the occupied territories of the Republic of Cyprus where hundreds of Churches of all denominations have been looted and destroyed or converted into animal pens. Priceless icons have been stolen or destroyed, cemeteries destroyed, the Christian population ethnically cleansed, ancient names changed and all evidence of the civilisations that lived there obliterated. This disgusting uncivilised rabble do not realise that they reap what they sow. What goes round comes round… And the wheel is more than half way turned…

    • Last I checked it was Greece that gave EOKA the go ahead to overthrow Makarios and put the fanatic anti-Turk Sampson in charge to realize their fantasy of “enosis”. Greece and EOKA played with fire and got burned by Turkey. The junta and Sampson’s leadership mysteriously collapsed with the arrival Turkish troops on the island. Cowards get what they deserve. And make no mistake- they got what they deserved.

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