Will new research lead to repatriation of mosaics to Turkey?

Bowling Green mosaic tile

Turkey’s latest repatriation request called for the return of a dozen Roman mosaics currently owned and displayed at the Wolfe Center for the Arts at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio. The university acquired the mosaics—which depict birds, human faces and other subjects in intricate detail—in 1965 from a New York dealer for $35,000. BGSU believed the mosaics had been discovered in a Princeton led excavation in Antioch during the 1930s. At the time of the excavation, Antioch was a Syrian province (the province was later annexed to Turkey in 1939), where the university was granted concessions by the Syrian government to excavate in the region. The archeological findings were then legally distributed according to the original agreement with the Syrian government.

New research, however, from Dr. Rebecca Molholt, assistant professor at Brown University, and Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper, assistant professor at BGSU, reveals the mosaics were most likely illegally looted from the ancient Roman garrison town of Zeugma in modern day Turkey in the 1960s and were not acquired from the Princeton campaigns in Antioch as originally believed. This change in provenance could dramatically affect the fate of the mosaics’ final resting place. If the mosaics were excavated from Zeugma as suspected, then they would belong to Turkey under the current Law on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Property of 1983. Turkey has one of the oldest patrimony laws in place (since the Ottoman Empire), vesting ownership of all moveable and immovable artifacts to the state.

Turkey’s General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Abdullah Kocapinar praised BGSU for its responsiveness and candor, stating:

“The attitude of Bowling Green State University will set an example for other universities and art institutions in America which possess cultural properties illegally exported from our country.”

Kocapinar is no doubt alluding to Turkey’s recent requests for at least a dozen objects in U.S. and British collections, wherein the museums have been less than forthcoming about provenance details and acquisition records.

In an additional show of cooperation, a local reporter’s inquiry into the BGSU controversy helped promote dialogue between the two parties and will hopefully allow for a smooth transition between owners should research confirm the mosaics were indeed illegally looted and exported to the United States.

University President Mary Ellen Mazey affirms: “We will do the right thing.”

Click here to view the mosaic tiles.

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