Turkey Approaches Louvre for Art Restitution, Raising Larger Cultural Property Issues

On September 22, the Louvre opened a new Islamic Arts wing, displaying over 3,000 works, among them a wall of Ottoman Iznik ceramic tiles. The wall is composed of three panels of tiles that, according to Louvre authorities, entered the French public collection between 1871 and 1940. Turkish officials claim that some of the tiles were stolen from the Piyale Pasha mosque in Istanbul at the end of the 19th century by French art historian Germain Bapst and demand the panels be returned. An estimated eight panels were taken from the mosque: five have been located in various museums, and the remaining three could be the ones currently displayed in the Louvre.

A daily Turkish newspaper, Radikal, also reacted at the end of October, accusing the museum of “displaying ‘stolen’ ceramics.” Turkish Minister of Culture Ertugrul Günay, in Paris on Wednesday November 21 to defend the city of Izmir’s place in the Universal Exhibition, also officially requested the return of the tiles to Turkey. He confirmed with the AFP Thursday that “we would like to start the conversation between French authorities and general management of the Turkish museums.” The Louvre assured that the tiles were acquired “in conditions that were perfectly legal and in line with the rules of the time.”

An example of Iznik ceramic tiles similar to the ones displayed in the Louvre. These come from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Photo: Flickr.com/beggs

This is not the first time Turkey has requested that the Louvre return objects to them. In 2006, the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister contacted the Louvre regarding sixty Iznik ceramic tiles from the tomb of Suleiman II. These tiles were brought to Paris by Albert Sorlin-Dorigny, a French collector who was in Istanbul working on the restoration of the Hagia Sophia in the late 1880s. In 1895, the Louvre bought a collection of Iznik ceramics from Sorlin-Dorigny, including the sixty-tile panel that has been on view in the museum since 1905. Turkey’s 2006 request for the panel from Suleimain II’s tomb was dismissed.

Iznik is a town in western Turkey that was the center of ceramic production of the Ottoman Empire throughout the sixteenth century. The town experienced a burst of tile production beginning in the middle of this century that would result in extremely elaborate, high-quality tiles for important buildings. Both the tomb of Suleiman II and the Piyale Pasha mosque were decorated with tiles of this kind. The Louvre, however, says that the provenance of the three panels of tiles “remains a mystery,” citing research that has called into question the Turkish claim that these panels come from the Piyale Pasha mosque.

In the case of the tiles from Suleiman II’s tomb, the French collector Sorlin-Dorigny brought the tiles to Paris in order to restore them, according to a report compiled by the Hagia Sophia Museum. According to Jale Dedeoglu, the director of the museum, the reason for the restitution request came because of new knowledge of the tiles’ existence in Paris; others, however, assert that their place in the Louvre is common knowledge and has been for nearly a century.

The case of the Louvre’s Iznik tiles—both sets—is problematic, not only for these isolated examples. Requests for art restitution from major museums have become more frequent in recent years, and the case of the Iznik tiles is only one of many involving Turkey. In 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston sent back a statue of the “weary Herakles,” and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin agreed to restitute a sphinx that has been there since 1915.

The entrance to the Louvre. Photo: Olga Symeonoglou

As with all international issues, there is no absolute authority on the issue of cultural repatriation of art. In 1970, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) held a convention to deal specifically with the exchange of cultural property between nations. They defined cultural property as “property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.”

This convention established numerous principles and standards of behavior, but none of them can be applied retroactively. States that have ratified the convention are obligated, however, to recognize the rights of each other state “to facilitate recovery of such property by the State concerned in cases where it has been exported.” Although the convention could not apply its post-1970 regulations to all art that has been dispersed throughout the world, the ratification implies respect for the principles being established and a pledge to honor them. France ratified the convention at the time of its inception in 1970, and Turkey ratified it in 1981.

According to Scott McKinney, who received his J.D. from Columbia Law School and studied international law at Oxford, “If a country such as Turkey demands that France return artifacts that were removed from Turkey in the 19th century, France has every right to refuse, and there isn’t much that Turkey can do about it.” This particular case sheds light on the difficulties generally faced by international law, McKinney added, observing that “international disputes such as these are difficult to enforce because there is no compulsory judicial system (or enforcement mechanism) able to adjudicate breaches of treaties or settle cross-border disputes.”

In his paper, “Resolving Cultural Property Disputes in the Shadow of the Law,” Grant Strother, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, expressed that in the realm of cultural property, the difficulty of enforcement does not lessen the value of establishing the laws anyway. These legal rules, he argues, “impact bargaining less in the potential for their enforcement, and more in how they shape the discourse of the dispute resolution process.”

While the recent movement towards repatriation has grown, these practices are standards of behavior as opposed to ones enforceable by legal action. Unesco stresses the importance of embracing cultural differences, attributing works of art with a specific value as contributing in a significant way to the culture of the country of origin. The purpose of a museum like the Louvre is to educate its visitors about different cultures, but this mission requires diversity in the origins of the objects in their collections. Ultimately, there is no final authority, and each request for cultural property restitution depends on the specifics of the case and the willingness of the parties to cooperate with one another.


  1. Sarantis Symeonoglou says:

    Thanks for this very informative and important contribution.

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