Museums Heritage Turkey

Turkey renews claim for long-lost head

V&A has said it is conditionally willing to lend its fragment to reunite it with the Sidamara Sarcophagus in Istanbul

The Sidamara Sarcophagus, without the child’s head, on show in Istanbul

The Turkish government has renewed its claim against London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) for the marble head of a child from the Sidamara Sarcophagus. The life-size head, representing Eros, became detached from the third-century BC sarcophagus and was brought to London in 1883. The sarcophagus, one of the finest from the ancient world, later went on show at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

On 1 May, Turkey’s ministry of culture and tourism published a list of antiquities that it wants to recover from museums in Germany, America, France, Denmark and Britain. This includes the Sidamara head.

Paul Williamson, the V&A’s curator responsible for sculpture, understands the Turkish wish to display the head with the sarcophagus. Shortly before the renewed claim, he told us that the museum is “willing to send the head back to Turkey on long-term loan, but an agreement has not yet been reached on the conditions”.

Although the loan would be long-term (possibly for five years, and renewable), in practice the head would probably remain in Istanbul permanently. It would be cemented or glued to the sarcophagus, using reversible materials. Technically, the head could be recalled by the V&A, but this would probably only be done if it was not being cared for properly.

The proposed loan poses two difficulties. First, Turkey would have to recognise the museum’s legal ownership of the head. Second, under Turkey’s laws, antiquities from Turkish soil cannot be exported. This even applies to those that are on loan from abroad—a problem that would have to be addressed. Meanwhile the head of the Sidamara Sarchophagus remains in store at the V&A.

Permission granted in 1930s

The Art Newspaper has been given access to the V&A’s archival file on the head, which reveals that the museum obtained the UK government’s permission to return it to Turkey in the 1930s.

The sarcophagus was discovered by the British archaeologist Charles Wilson in 1883 at Sidamara, in central Turkey. He hoped to return later to retrieve the sarcophagus, which he reburied, but he took the head, which was obviously more portable (and may have broken off). The sarcophagus was rediscovered in 1898 and taken to Istanbul.

In 1883, Wilson wrote to the V&A’s director: “I am trying to secure the [whole] sarcophagus for England and should wish the head eventually to go to whomever secures the sarcophagus.” In the meantime, he offered the head on loan. His daughter converted the loan into a donation in 1932.

In 1934, the museum considered returning the head to Turkey. Aziz Bey, the head of antiquities in Istanbul, offered, “in exchange, an object of the same value”. The V&A director, Eric Maclagan, then wrote to the UK Board of Education asking permission to deaccession and suggesting that the Turks should be asked for a Byzantine carved marble sculpture.

In a minute dated 20 April 1934, Maclagan recorded that the return would “raise the difficulty of possible repercussions, particularly with regard to the Elgin Marbles [at the British Museum], but I think we could justify ourselves by pointing out that this is a question of a single head missing from a large monument, of much more value if replaced than if exhibited by itself.” The Board of Education and the Treasury then agreed to the V&A returning the head. There the correspondence in the file abruptly ends - and it remains unclear why the proposed exchange never took place.

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