Operation Heritage busts artifact smuggling ring in Turkey

In one of the largest operations against smugglers of artifacts, Turkish security forces raided 38 provinces on Tuesday, issuing arrest warrants for 143 suspects. Dubbed “Operation Legacy”, the raids targeted suspects who were sending artefacts unearthed from illegal excavations to be sold at auction houses abroad.

The operations were based in the central province of Konya and were the culmination of an investigation that lasted about a year. Anti-smuggling and organized crime police units, with arrest warrants issued by the Seydişehir District Attorney General’s Office, seized a treasure trove of artifacts during operations. The number of suspects captured has not yet been disclosed. Seydişehir is known for its rich history as the home of Neolithic, Hittite, Seljuk, and Ottoman civilizations, as well as Roman rule. Most of the artifacts excavated in the district are on display at the Konya Archeology Museum.

Citing security sources, media reported that the smuggling ring was split into four groups. One group included “diggers” who did the hard work and illegally dug archaeological sites and other preserved areas. They delivered the precious artifacts they found to “collectors”. The ‘collectors’ then passed them on to ‘traders’, who were leaders and responsible for marketing the artifacts to auction houses in other countries. A fourth group named “couriers” were behind the smuggling of the artifacts overseas.

It was one of these “smugglers”, a truck driver, who helped the authorities reveal the extent of the contraband. The driver was caught red-handed trying to send 1,736 artefacts to an auction house in Britain by freight via Austria. A review by experts from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism revealed that the majority of the artifacts had their origins in Anatolia, hence the property of Turkey.

While investigating the suspects’ bank accounts, security forces discovered that the ringleader had received a large sum of money from six auction houses in Europe and the United States and other people, and that the money was distributed among the members of the network.

The operation also thwarted the sale of a Byzantine Empire seal smuggled from Turkey to an auction house in Switzerland for 28,000 Swiss francs ($29,144), media reported.

Cradle of multiple civilizations, Turkey has been slow to prevent the smuggling of its artifacts overseas and, in some cases, turned a blind eye to the issue in the past. In recent years, she has launched a new legal battle to recover Anatolian heritage taken abroad. In 2021, the country recovered some 3,480 of its cultural property thanks to the efforts of the country’s anti-smuggling authorities. The artifact recovery process involves multiple state agencies, including law enforcement and judicial authorities, as well as diplomatic efforts and legal cases with the countries where the artifacts are found. The policy of taking cultural property abroad without official permission was banned in the Ottoman Empire in 1906 and continued under the Republic of Turkey founded in 1923. Under current legislation in effect since then, excavations without a license are illegal, as is the lack of a report. any artifacts discovered to the authorities.

One of the biggest recoveries took place in the United States when hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt was forced to hand over 14 Turkish-origin artifacts to the country.

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