Turkish Antiquities Warning!

Last Updated on April 15, 2024

Turkey has a rich history that dates back 700 years, starting with the humble beginnings of the Ottoman Era. The land of Turkey, also known as Asia Minor, has been a cradle for many important empires throughout history, including the Hellenic (Greek) Empires, the Hittite Empire, the Lycians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and finally, the Ottoman Empire.

So, the land is covered with archaeological sites, burial mounds, cultural heritage, and historical artifacts. There are also many ancient cities and Unesco World Heritage Sites to explore. For example, the ancient city and archaeological site of Çatalhöyük date back more than 9000 years! Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

This abundance of cultural heritage means that you can find many fine historical artifacts in Turkey, ranging from Islamic art to Turkish carpets, coins from early civilizations, and cultural collections. Many Turkish archaeological museums, regulated by the Turkish Ministry, preserve and exhibit these artifacts. For instance, the first Ottoman Turkish museum, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, exhibits over one million objects.

Turkey holds a treasure trove of antiquities, and Turks rightly want to protect this patrimony for present and future generations. A huge amount of this cultural patrimony was taken from Turkey during the 19th century (especially during the First World War) and now resides in museums in Europe, America, and other places. For example, German archaeologists took the Pergamon Altar, which has been a long-standing controversy in Turkey. Lawsuits brought by the Turkish government against museums that had procured Turkish cultural treasures illegally have resulted in some treasures being returned to archaeology museum protection in Turkey, such as the recent news that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Neywork repatriated 12 antiquities to Turkey but there is still much to do.

Buying Antiques in Turkey

It’s illegal to buy, sell, possess, or—especially—export from Turkey antiquities (usually defined as carpets, coins, icons, colored tiles and ceramics, paintings, statues and sculptures, metal objects, etc.) more than one or two centuries old (i.e., older than antiques.)

Penalties are stiff and usually include a prison sentence for serious offenses.

How can you tell if the Turkish carpet you’re buying is an antiquity or just old? If you have doubts, legally, you’re supposed to take it to a museum, have an expert examine it, and write an official assessment saying whether or not it can be exported. This is impractical, of course, and usually unnecessary. Many carpet shops in Turkey now provide you with a form from a museum certifying that the piece you’re buying is not an antiquity and may be legally sold, bought, and exported.

A true antiquity will normally be priced so high that you wouldn’t buy it if you didn’t know you were buying an ancient treasure. Most carpets you’d buy as souvenirs have been made in the last 100 years, probably even the last 10 years, and perhaps in China or India, so you needn’t worry—unless you really are shopping for 17th and 18th-century carpets.

What about old statues, statuettes, and coins? Farmers often come across these items while plowing. They may offer them to tourists for sale, not knowing it’s illegal and that these items, by law, must be surrendered to the nearest museum.

Don’t buy them!

For one thing, you may be buying a fake because there is a brisk trade in fake ancient statuettes, figurines, and coins. Unless it’s an obvious fake (with, say, “Made in China” on the bottom), you may still be arrested for violating antiquities law when you leave the country because the customs officer spot-checking your bags may not be able to tell a fake from the real thing, either.

The illegal international trade in stolen antiquities is a dirty business. Don’t let yourself be associated with it in any way, even by innocent error. Stay clear of antiquities of all kinds—except for admiring them in Turkey’s archaeology museums and many sites full of history and culture.

—by Tom Brosnahan, updated by Can Turan

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Grand BazaarIstanbul


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