Turkish Antiquities Warning!

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(ie, 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 and have an expert examine it and write an official assessment telling 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.

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.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Grand BazaarIstanbul

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.

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 and now resides in museums in Europe, America and other places. Lawsuits brought by the Turkish government against museums which had procured Turkish cultural treasures illegally have resulted in some treasures being returned to Turkey.

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 museums.

—Tom Brosnahan


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