every story about Turkey has everything: fake conflict antiquities trafficking, drug trafficking and conflict financing

While I was collecting evidence of the markets for (fake) conflict antiquities that are trafficked from and through Turkey, journalist Cristina Maza reviewed the allegations by Turkey that former CIA agent Graham Fuller was involved in the 2016 coup attempt and observed that ‘this story has everything’. I noted that every story about Turkey has everything. Here, I try to trace historical connections between trafficking of fake conflict antiquities, trafficking of other illicit commodities and financing of politically-motivated armed groups.

Art forgery for the conflict antiquities market

For example, there has been a steady flow of fake Picasso paintings (which are invariably reported as genuine Picassos when they are seized): in 2017, at least twice; 2016; 2013; 2011; 2001, repeatedly; 2000, repeatedly; ‘more than 10’, certainly, since the 1990s

They are typically marketed as blood antiquities or conflict antiquities, stolen from museums and palaces in Kuwait (such as Kuwait National Museum) during its occupation by Iraq in 1990-1991. Except, Kuwait has denied such attributions; no Picassos were stolen in the first place. Nonetheless, the sellers know their market; the buyers want to exploit crisis and conflict. Some forgeries have been intercepted in Iraq, bought in Iraq or bought from people en route from Iraq. So, the (leading) forgers and fraudsters (who advertise the forgeries as conflict antiquities) appear to be based in Iraq.

At least one was marketed by a relative of a war veteran and intercepted in Iraq in 2009. This would partly explain the drop in cases in Turkey between 2001 and 2011. At least one, too, was smuggled from Syria to Turkey. It is not known whether that indicates another workshop in Syria or another route for the workshop in Iraq.

Art forgery, heroin trafficking and conflict financing/terrorism financing

In 2001, suspected traffickers of fake Picassos in Turkey included the nephew and the bodyguard/driver of then MP Mustafa Bayram. Bayram was ‘at the scene’ of the sting operation, yet ‘escaped arrest’ due to parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Convicted heroin trafficker Bayram was also a ‘well-known heroin chemist’. He had appeared in police records repeatedly since 1979. By 2001, he was suspected of heroin trafficking (again), but then had parliamentary immunity. Once he had lost his immunity, in 2004, he and his son, Halit Bayram, were charged with heroin trafficking.

This was not a small business. In the 1990s, Mustafa Bayram’s son-in-law, ‘Kurdish drug baron’ Cumhur Yakut, was reportedly the ‘top heroin exporter’ from Turkey to the United Kingdom. His operation sometimes sent shipments of hundreds of kilograms of heroin. Other family members include suspected heroin producer Adem Yakut and suspected heroin smuggler Neşet Yakut, plus suspected heroin smuggler İslam Yakut and suspected heroin dealer Kamuran Yakut.

Cumhur Yakut was ‘father of godfathers’ or ‘baron of barons’ (babaların babası or baronların baronu), the local adaptation of “boss of bosses” or “boss of all bosses” (capo dei capi or capo di tutti capi). He was also ‘linked’ to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Indeed, in 2008, the United States listed Cumhur Yakut amongst ‘PKK entities and associates’ and subjected him to trading sanctions for his ‘narcotics activity’. He was eventually arrested in 2013. So, this illicit trafficking of fake art was directly tied to drug trafficking and indirectly tied to paramilitary financing.

Art forgery, heroin trafficking and deep state crime

Beyond the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Cumhur Yakut was ‘linked’ to the ‘Susurluk gang’, a deep state network that committed politically-motivated organised crime. In fact, ‘among the controversies of Susurluk and the emerging connections, the name of [Yakut’s father-in-law, then MP] Mustafa Bayram was often on the agenda [Susurluk tartışmaları ve ortaya çıkan ilişkiler içer[i]sinde de Mustafa Bayram’ın ismi sık sık gündeme gelmişti]’, yet he ‘was not touched [dokunulmamıştı]’.

With reference to the deep state network that was exposed through the scandal in Susurluk, there has also been talk of ‘Van’s Susurluk [Van’ın Susurluk’u]’, ‘Susurluk in Van [Van’daki Susurluk]’ or a ‘2nd Susurluk [2’nci Susurluk]’, in relation to Mustafa Bayram and Hamit Bayram. There was a ‘triangle [üçgen]’ of tribes, politicians and the state. It was a ‘partnership [ortaklığı]’ between Turkish state officials, Kurdish tribal groups and drug smuggling networks. In other words, it was a state gang. In Van, ‘things [had] been conducted in completely the same way for years [işlerin yıllardır hep aynı yöntemlerle yürütüldüğü]’.

So, sometimes, even the flow of fake art merges with the flow of heroin; the proceeds of art crime benefit organised crime groups, paramilitary groups/terrorist organisations and deep state criminals. In 2017, suspected traffickers of fake Picassos in Turkey included a serving police officer and a retired police chief. The details of their alleged operation have yet to be revealed.

4 Responses to “every story about Turkey has everything: fake conflict antiquities trafficking, drug trafficking and conflict financing”

  1. Reblogged this on HARN Weblog.



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