antiquities, drugs and arms – organised crime, intelligence operations and dirty wars in Turkey and beyond

Returning to the “series” of posts on Turkey, I want to trace the connections between antiquities trafficking and drug trafficking, arms trafficking, organised crime and conflict financing (or other conflict facilitation) in Turkey and beyond.

Transnational organised drugs crime and conflict drugs trafficking

As I learned during my early research in (Cyprus and) Turkey, drug trafficking has been conducted by profit-driven organised crime networks and organised crime groups; politically-motivated armed groups, such as the Kurdish autonomist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the communist Revolutionary Left (Devrimci Sol), the Islamist Turkish/Kurdish Hizbullah and the Turkish fascist Grey Wolves; and state criminals in law enforcement agencies and security services.

There have been ‘protected criminals [Korunan suçlular]’. Some ‘drug smugglers [have been] protected [uyuşturucu kaçakçılarının korunduğu]’. A notorious organised criminal and state criminal who ‘worked with the highest level of intelligence units [en üst düzey istihbarat birimleriyle çalıştığ[ı]]’, Abdullah Çatlı, once told a partner-in-crime who shifted between work as an intelligence agent for the National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) and Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism (JİTEM) and work as an assassin, “Yeşil” Mahmut Yıldırım, that another partner-in-crime ‘[did] heroin job[s], but [did them with]in the law [Eroin işi yapıyor ama kanunla yapıyor]’.

Organised crime has been so dominant, connections between organised criminals and state actors have been so deep, conflict drug trafficking has been so significant in the Turkish statist-Kurdish autonomist war, that some organised crime (organised drug crime) has been characterised as state-organised crime.

Transnational organised cultural property crime and conflict antiquities trafficking

Furthermore, it has long been known that violent crime, such as murder, and organised crime are features of the antiquities smuggling business in Turkey. Other posts in this series have documented iconoclasm and theft of antiquities by politically-motivated armed groups in Turkey; trafficking of fake conflict antiquities (in the form of religious relics) in Turkey; trafficking of drugs and fake conflict antiquities (in the form of forged artworks) by politically-motivated armed groups in Turkey; and the assassination of a journalist who investigated conflict antiquities trafficking in Cyprus (seemingly) by a drug-smuggling, paramilitary-leading deep state agent from Turkey.

Here, I want to consolidate the evidence of the nature of antiquities trafficking in Turkey. This owes a great debt to the pioneering work of journalist Özgen Acar, who documented much (and more) of the antiquities trafficking, including its connections with drug trafficking and organised crime. He has been threatened with death, by antiquities dealer Fuat Üzülmez, for his work. Antiquities collector and private investigator Arthur Brand has also been pressured and ‘threatened’, by unnamed persons, for his investigation of smuggling by the same cartel.

This includes a case that was noted in Looting Matters, where the leading figure was as well known to London drug gangs as he was to London antiquities dealers. It may help law enforcement since, at least in the past, some foreign law enforcement agencies only knew antiquities smugglers as drugs smugglers.

Turkey and Cyprus

Turkey

According to equally notorious antiquities smuggler Michel van Rijn, antiquities smuggler Aydın Dikmen had such strong connections with ‘senior officers in the Turkish army’ that he was jokingly identified as the ‘official archaeologist [of] the occupying force’ in northern Cyprus. According to his clients, such as Peg Goldberg, he misrepresented himself as a former state archaeologist. Theoretically, like Dikmen’s ‘understanding with important officers’ in the United Nations‘ peacekeeping force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), those connections may only reflect corruption.

However, the connections may be stronger. Özgen Acar and Melik Kaylan have reported that Turkey maintains ‘dossiers’ on serious cultural property criminals, but rarely acts on the information. By the late 1980s, a private company of ‘retired military officers’ was conducting ‘aerial surveys of ancient sites’ with military aircraft, then selling survey maps to antiquities smugglers.

Police officers who have disrupted the smuggling business, unsubtly including both Hilmi Özer and his immediate successor Fahrettin Çakar, have been demoted and/or transferred out of positions of power. More recently, in an incredibly convoluted case that I will discuss soon, police officer Mithat Erdal was ‘murdered [öldürdü]’ for investigating a network of traffickers with members in the police. This state of affairs does not necessarily demonstrate state crime or para-state crime, but it does demonstrate the risk of such crime and the complexity of state functioning in Turkey.

Cyprus

On top of circumstantial evidence, such as the need for some looted antiquities to be transferred across front lines during the Cyprus Conflict, there is material evidence of links between antiquities trafficking and other forms of serious crime.

Previous posts have collated evidence that Aydın Dikmen has been implicated in the trafficking of antiquities, forgeries and drugs, as well as associated with perpetrators of organised crime and paramilitary violence/intelligence work.

As noted in the previous post and documented in a book chapter, one of Dikmen’s key team members in Cyprus was “Tremeşeli” Mehmet Ali İlkman. İlkman was a ‘well-known’ antiquities trafficker, who had been ‘arrested [tutuklayan]’ for involvement in the illicit ‘sale of fake and original antiquities [sahte ve orijinal eski eserleri satmak]’ within the last ten years. (He died in 2012.)

İlkman was also a paramilitary fighter-turned-intelligence agent, who had served in the Turkish (Cypriot) Resistance Organisation (TMT, at least between 1958 and 1967), then the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MİT, at least between 1967 and 1979, which at least partially covers the period in which İlkman was working with Dikmen).

Turkey and Syria

More recently, as noted in a previous post, explained in another post and recorded in another book chapter, MİT agent Heysem Topalca has been accused of trafficking arms from Turkey to violent extremist organisations in Syria and trafficking antiquities from territory that is controlled by violent extremist organisations in Syria to Turkey. These cases suggest that antiquities trafficking has existed and persisted as a state mechanism for conflict financing.

Turkey and Bulgaria

As ‘gang members’ told Acar and Kaylan in discussion of the Turkish antiquities mafia, certainly under Communism and seemingly into the post-socialist transition, Bulgaria’s ‘authorities never interfere[d]’ in smuggling by the Turkish mafia and were ‘probably well rewarded’ for not interfering.

Theoretically, this might only have indicated corruption. In fact, as documented by journalists Darik Bogdana Lazarova and Nikolay Hristov, Communist Bulgarian state criminals collaborated with Turkish fascist (and other) organised criminals in arms-for-drugs trafficking. Bulgaria’s non-interference was state policy.

As reported by Lazarova and Hristov, the United States ‘suspected’ Hüseyin Uğurlu (also written as Husein Uğurlu, also known as Kurt Husein and Hamal Husein) of trafficking in drugs and arms between Turkey and Bulgaria. And Hüseyin Uğurlu’s father, Turkish Mafia godfather Abuzer Uğurlu (also written as Abuser Ugurlu and Abutser Ugurlu, also known as Abutserugur and Matsen Tsaduani), was a convicted drugs-for-arms trafficker.

Abuzer Uğurlu worked for MİT ‘officially [resmi]’ between 1974 and 1979 and worked with MİT ‘personally [kişisel]’ even longer. Uğurlu also worked with Turkish fascist paramilitary/terrorist Grey Wolves under the aforementioned smuggler of heroin and doer of MİT’s dirty work, Abdullah Çatlı. Uğurlu also worked for Communist Bulgarian intelligence and worked with the Communist Bulgarian state trafficking service, Kintex.

According to Judge Carlo Palermo, ‘large quantities of sophisticated NATO weaponry… were smuggled from Western Europe to countries in the Middle East during the 1970s and early 1980s’, ‘often… in exchange for consignments of heroin’ from Turkey ‘through Bulgaria to northern Italy’, through Italian Mafia to elsewhere in Europe and the United States.

Working for Abuzer Uğurlu with Hüseyin Uğurlu and Mustafa Uğurlu between 1966 and 1973, Faruk Telliağaoğlu trafficked arms. Using an abbreviated name that was easier for speakers of European languages, Aydın Telli was implicated in the ‘drug business [uyuşturucu iş[i]]’, too. In a secret letter on the 10th of July 1985, the former director of counter-terrorism for MİT, Mehmet Eymür, established network associations of Aydın Telli (possibly through heroin smuggler and suspected assassin “Köylü” Abdurrahman Kıpçak) with Abuzer Uğurlu and Abdullah Çatlı. Mehmet Eymür also accused Aydın Telli of participation in ‘provocative operations [provokatif operasyonlar]’. Other members of the Telliağaoğlu clan were notorious members of the antiquities mafia. Some smuggled drugs and antiquities or arms and antiquities.

Aydın Dikmen and Edip Telli

Dikmen had a direct connection with the antiquities mafia, in the form of then antiquities mafioso Fuat Üzülmez; he also had a network association with it, through France-based antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht (also known as Robert Hecht or Bob Hecht), who himself had direct connections with antiquities mafiosi. Indeed, Dikmen, Hecht, Üzülmez and mafia boss Edip Telli have been characterised as ‘dear friends’.

Dikmen had another network association with the antiquities mafia, in the form of trafficking intermediary Muhammed Yegani (also transliterated as Muhammed Yoganah). This association emerged through the illicit trafficking of the Lydian Hoard or Karun Treasures and other cultural goods.

Edip Telliağaoğlu (or Telli) and Nevzat Telliağaoğlu (or Telli) were the sons of former CHP MP for Mardin, Mehmet Selim Telliağaoğlu. Edip Telli (also known as “Edip Telli-Kaufmann” or “Edip Kaufmann”, as he was married to Monika Kaufmann), and others in the Telliağaoğlu/Telli clan, ‘participated’ in the smuggling of the Karun Treasures out of Turkey between 1966 and 1968.

Transturk Shipping Company owner Nizamettin Telliağaoğlu transported the Karun Treasures from Turkey to Germany and Switzerland between 1966 and 1968. He also trafficked arms, cigarettes and other illicit commodities, until he was killed in a shoot-out with police on the 10th of July 1969.

John Klejman, Hecht and Yegani ‘mediated [aracılık etmişlerdi]’ sales to the Metropolitan Museum in the United States. Acar relayed that Edip Telli himself recorded the involvement of Ali Bayırlar, Sökeli Ali, George Zakos (Yorgo Zakos) and Yegani.

(Karun Hazineleri hikayesi burada okunabilir.)

As Acar reported in Cumhuriyet, another ‘informant [Muhbir]’ relayed that Frankfurt-based Yegani ‘came to Turkey often [Türkiye’ye sık sık geldiğ[i]]’. In another operation, in 1970,

“He sent his men to Turkey and collected the goods…. One of these men was Aydın Dikmen, who resided in Konya [although, by 1972 at the latest, his ‘headquarters’ were in Munich].”… Readers will remember the name of the… smuggler and forger Aydın Dikmen from the case of the Kanakaria Mosaics that were smuggled from Cyprus.

[“Türkiye’ye adamlarını gönderip mal toplattığı…. Bu adamlardan bir tanesi Konya’da ikamet eden Aydın Dikmen’dir.”… Okurlar… kaçakçı, sahtekâr Aydın Dikmen‘in adını Kıbrıs’tan kaçırılan Kanakarya Mozaikleri olayından anımsayacaklardı.]

Edip Telli and the Turkish Mafia

antiquities mafia

The predominantly Syriac and Kurdish antiquities mafia was a ‘branch of the Turkish Mafia’. Predominantly from Mardin, Turkey and in Munich, Germany, it was a ‘cartel’, a part of a network of groups. Amongst other cases, it was involved in the smuggling of the Elmalı hoard. Mafia boss Edip Telli was the ‘mastermind’ of the smuggling. That hoard comprised around 1,900 coins, which had been looted in Bayındır village, Elmalı district, Antalya province (south-western Anatolia), in 1984.

The hoard was looted by treasure-hunting technician İbrahim Sungur, alongside treasure-hunting hotel-owner İbrahim Başbuğ and incidental host village leader (muhtar) Ahmet Ali Şentürk, with Sungur’s home-made, hand-built metal detector. Başbuğ was caught (and was represented in court by the head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), lawyer Deniz Baykal), but he paid a ‘bribe [rüşvet]’ and was released.

The coins were ‘smuggled [kaçırıldı]’ to Switzerland and the United States by four ‘smugglers [kaçakçılar]’, who had 25% shares in the profits: Edip Telli, Fuat Üzülmez, Nevzat Telli and Fuat Aydıner. Nihat Kolaşın and Grand Bazaar dealer Metin Özharat gave ‘important [önemli]’ assistance.

United States-based businessman William Koch (also known as Bill Koch), United States-based investment banker Jonathan Kagan and UK-based (American) academic Jeffrey Spier (OKS Partners) bought around 1,800 coins for $3,200,000 in 1984, then began to sell them in 1987. Coins were sold through antiquities dealers such as Vienna-based Anton Tkalec and Chicago-based Harlan J. Berk for ‘reported[ly] $295,000’ each. OKS Partners were forced to restitute their remaining 1,661 coins in 1999.

(Elmalı Sikkeleri hikayesi burada okunabilir.)

antiquities mafiosi

Now retired, ‘kingpin’/‘ringleader’ “blind” Edip Telliağaoğlu was first arrested for antiquities trafficking in 1968 and later became a Munich-based antiquities dealer. Reaffirming the nature of the organised crime group (OCG), Edip Telli used violence and intimidation to control activities of partners and flows of commodities.

“Big” Fuat Üzülmez is a Munich-based antiquities dealer, who was then ‘top lieutenant’ in the antiquities mafia. His father, Faraç Üzülmez, was suspected of illicit export. The antiquities mafia’s buying-and-supplying ‘gang[s]’ were identified with the names of Kolaşin (specifically, Nihat Kolaşin), Gülener, Dere and Aydıner. And goldsmith Aziz Dere, gallery-owner Selim Dere and art dealer Faraç Üzülmez were ‘arrested’ for participation in the trafficking of the sarcophagus of Hercules from Perge, Turkey.

One piece of that sarcophagus was later repatriated by the Getty Museum in the United States, while two pieces were sold by the Mahboubian Gallery in the United Kingdom to a private collection in Switzerland.

Nevzat Telli was a London-based businessman, who was ‘generally… engaged in the antiquities trade [genellikle… antika ticareti ile uğraştığı]’ in the United Kingdom and later convicted and ‘imprisoned [cezaevinde yatmıştır]’ for heroin smuggling in Germany. He smuggled two tons of cannabis per month from Lebanon to Europe in the 1970s, which seemingly spanned the early years of the Lebanese civil war, as he was only convicted and imprisoned in Germany in the 1980s. (One source appears to date the start of his seven-and-a-half years’ imprisonment to 1977, but that may reflect the date of the offence rather than the date of the conviction.)

“Little” Fuat Aydıner was another antiquities mafioso. His nephew, Sait Aydıner, was at least occasionally involved in illicit export.

Metin Özharat was a ‘famous antiquities smuggler [ünlü antika kaçakçısı]’, perhaps ‘one of the five most important antiquities smugglers [en önemli beş büyük eski eser kaçakçısından biri]’ in Turkey. His cousin, Tekin Özharat, was ‘murdered [during] the smuggling of a[nother] gold treasure [hoard] [Adıyaman’da bir altın definesi kaçakçılığında öldürülmüştü]’.

international policing of organised crime

In events that recall the treatment of the suspected accomplices in the assassination of Ömer Lütfü Topal, even after a notorious case was publicly revealed, Fuat Üzülmez and Nevzat Telli remained ‘inexplicably’ uncharged.

Yet such realities are not confined to Turkey. The police in Germany detained Edip Telli, then a prosecutor released him, because he was a ‘respectable… German citizen [saygın… Alman vatandaşı]’, who had ‘considerable business and family ties [saygın bir aile ve iş çevresi]’.

The police in Italy apologised that (half-)”blind Edip” had been detained, yet had ‘somehow escaped [their] clutches [Her nasılsa elimizden kaçtı]’. Seemingly, he had escaped ‘with the help of the Italian Mafia [İtalyan Mafiasının… yardımıyla]’. On the 30th of October 2000, he was ‘extradited [iade edildi]’ from Switzerland to Turkey for antiquities trafficking.

Turkish Mafia and Italian Mafia

Whether it can be confirmed or not, the suspected involvement of the “Italian Mafia”, Cosa Nostra, should not be surprising. As noted, Turkish Mafia and Italian Mafia collaborated in drugs-for-arms trafficking. And relatives of the mafiosi who trafficked antiquities and drugs were mafiosi who trafficked drugs for arms. There are also network associations through antiquities networks.

Robert Hecht and Gianfranco Becchina

Robert Hecht was not only closely associated with Edip Telli in Turkey. Art dealer Pasquale Camera depicted the direct connection between Bob Hecht and (now convicted) antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina in an organigram of antiquities trafficking supply lines out of Italy. The Carabinieri identified Becchina as Hecht’s ‘major supplier’. Antiquities dealer Frieda Tchacos (also known as Frieda Tchakos, Frida Tchacos-Nussberger and Frédérique Marie Nussberger-Tchacos) identified Hecht and Becchina as two points of a ‘precise triangle’. Their collaboration has been documented in detail. And Becchina was closely connected with Cosa Nostra.

Gianfranco Becchina and the Italian Mafia

As explained by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), at least since the time of regional mob boss (capo mandamento) Francesco Messina Denaro, Cosa Nostra is ‘believed’ to have profited from the proceeds of cultural property crime and Becchina has been implicated’ in looting, theft, laundering and fencing or selling those cultural assets by ex-mafiosi Giovanni Brusca and Vincenzo Calcara, plus ex-associates Concetto Mariano and Rosario Spatola.

Becchina’s assets have recently been seized because he is suspected of “mafia-type association” (associazione di tipo mafioso), including financially supporting Francesco Messina Denaro’s son, boss of all bosses (capo di tutti capi), “Diabolik” Matteo Messina Denaro.

antiquities traffickers from Turkey and Italy

antiquities from Turkey

In 1973, a gold coin surfaced on the market in Munich through Germany-based Egon Beckenbauer. In 1975, the coin was offered through Belgium-based Pierre Nonnweiler, who was closely connected to Switzerland-based Gianfranco Becchina and ‘reportedly close[ly]’ connected to Turkey-based antiquities dealers as well. As archaeologist Justin Walsh observed, it was still priced in German marks ‘rather than Belgian francs’, which suggested that ‘the coin (or its true owner) was still located in Germany’. In 1981, the coin entered the Hunt Collection in the United States.

In the mid-1970s, ‘rumors’ had suggested that ‘one or more Turkish sellers’, who was/were personified as “Mister Fuad” (which was a mishearing of “Mister Fuat”), was/were behind the surfacing of the coin. In 2017, Robert Hecht’s business partner, United States-based antiquities dealer Bruce McNall, informed Justin Walsh that he (himself) had ‘received the coin from Üzülmez’.

Giacomo Medici told journalist Sharon Waxman that a Roman marble statue, which ended up in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, had come ‘from Turkey’, was ‘typically Turkish’. The statue had passed to the museum from Robert Hecht. And, as suspected by Özgen Acar, whose suspicions were reported by Suzan Mazur, the statue had passed to Robert Hecht from Fuat Üzülmez. As reported by journalist Vernon Silver and documented by forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, in 1974, Swiss free port-using (later convicted) antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici photographed the statue while it was still in the possession of Fuat Üzülmez. (The statue was eventually relinquished, because the photograph demonstrated that it was probably illicit.)

By the mid-1990s, Üzülmez was the ‘leader of the Munich-cartel’. And the Telli/Üzülmez gang also handled the Carchemish Hoard, which Arthur Brand investigated. In Karkamış, in 1995, a villager found 3,000 coins. At least 13 were Athenian dekadrachm coins, each of which was worth $1,000,000. Then, the villager’s “nephew” (distant relative), low-level antiquities dealer Hikmet Gül, ‘smuggled [the coins] abroad [dışarı kaçıran]’.

Gül went to Munich, Germany; ‘made contact with Üzülmez [Üzülmez ile temasa geçtiğ[i]]’; and made a deal. ‘Üzülmez bought the first 800 for 1.5 million dollars. [Üzülmez’in ilk 800 sikkeyi 1.5 milyon dolara satın aldığ[ı].]’ In pushing these goods onto the market, Üzülmez was assisted by ‘well-known criminal’ Selim Dere, who was assisted by Antonio “Nino” Savoca, who was allegedly ‘also [a] member of the Munich-clan’.

Hikmet Gül ‘offered [teklif edildi]’ the rest of the hoard ‘to [other] smugglers in Turkey for 2.5 million dollars [Türkiye’deki kaçakçılara 2.5 milyon dolara]’. Yet ‘no-one [was] able to give this much money [kimse bu kadar parayı çıkartamayınca]’, so Gül returned to Üzülmez. ‘Together, they sold the coins [Birlikte sikkeleri… sattılar]’ to dealers in the international market, including Tkalec and Berk.

According to Brand, by 2006, both Gül’s relative and Gül were ‘safe, out of reach for the Turks [Turkey]’.

(Karkamış Definesi hikayesi burada okunabilir.)

antiquities from Italy

In fact, as documented by journalists Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini in the Medici Conspiracy, alongside Becchina and the perceived “boss of bosses” for antiquities, Giacomo Medici, Savoca was the top of a “cordata” (chain) in the Italian-origin network.

For example, as traced by journalist Jason Felch on Chasing Aphrodite, a sarcophagus was looted from Italy around 1981. It passed from Savoca in Germany, through Savoca’s frontman Carlo Ciochetti in Italy, to Gianfranco Becchina then George Ortiz (or to Becchina and Ortiz) in Switzerland, to Noriyoshi Horiuchi in Japan, who displayed it through the Phoenix Ancient Art dealership of Hicham Aboutaam and Ali Aboutaam in the United States in 2013.

Associations and connections

By definition, there were other direct connections within these channels from Turkey to market and from Italy to market, too. For instance, the Euphronius Sarpedon cup was looted in Italy in 1971, then flowed from Giacomo Medici through Robert Hecht to Bruce McNall. There was cycling or ‘laundering’ of antiquities from Giacomo Medici to the Aboutaam brothers and back again. As noted, (Edip) Telli, Üzülmez, Dikmen and Hecht formed a circle of ‘dear friends’. These reinforce network associations between these channels.

Just in terms of intersections and overlaps between the channels from Turkey and Italy, there was a network association of Üzülmez through Nonnweiler with Becchina, a network association of (Edip) Telli and Üzülmez through Hecht and McNall with Becchina and Medici, plus a network association of Üzülmez through Savoca with Becchina, as well as a direct connection between Üzülmez and Medici. These indicate that there were potential connections between the Turkish mafia and the Italian mafia.

an aside on Harlan J. Berk

Matters with archaeologists are manifestly personal for “HJB”. In 2008, during an unspecified disagreement over the wisdom of a programme of Ancient Coins for Education, Harlan Berk declared that he was ‘angry at the archaeologists and wanted to beat them’.

None of the following cases imply wrongdoing by Berk. Nonetheless, they demonstrate the risk of trading without risk-based due diligence (also known as supply chain due diligence). This is particularly true when antiquities may be ‘official[ly]’ consigned by one dealer yet actually consigned by another. As coin collector Peter Tompa advises: ‘Keep in mind HJB has probably sold over 100,000 coins’.

late 1980s

As discussed, in the late 1980s, Berk ignorantly handled looted coins of the Elmalı hoard from Turkey.

mid-1990s

Also as discussed, in the mid-1990s, Berk ignorantly handled looted coins of the Carchemish hoard from Turkey.

late 1990s

In the late 1990s, Berk ignorantly handled looted coins, which had been illegally extracted from Sarmizegetusa, Romania, by metal-detectorists. He ‘bought a few dozen, selling them to clients through his catalog’. When the FBI informed Berk, he helped Romania to trace some buyers, then Romania bought its own cultural property back from the private collectors who had ignorantly bought stolen property.

1999

In 1999, Berk ignorantly bought a stolen painting within the United States. When it was recognised by the cataloguer of his private collection, Susan Weininger, he returned it.

2003

In 2003, Berk was accused of handling fakes by antiquities smuggler Michel van Rijn, coin dealer Anton Tkalec and the founder of the Coin Forgery Discussion List (CFDL), numismatist Alan Van Arsdale.

In November 2003, van Rijn alleged that ‘Harlan Berk’s biggest supplier’ of loot and fakes was ‘an ex Hungarian immigrant by the name of William Veres‘ (also known as Bill Veres). Meanwhile, Brand alleged that ‘Todor [Ivanov] [had been] HJB’s biggest supplier’ of loot and fakes, until Ivanov’s alleged arrest sometime around May 2004.

Even the alleged arrest of Ivanov is not absolutely certain. Coin collector Jorg Lueke stated that he had ‘spoken with a couple of those [listed] dealers’ and they had not been arrested. However, technically, van Rijn had not alleged that those listed dealers had been arrested, only investigated. Regardless, the seeming disagreement between van Rijn and Brand may indicate that the allegations of one or both cannot be trusted.

2008

As observed by archaeologist Neil Brodie, when he reviewed antiquities from Iraq that had surfaced on the international market after the anarchy and plunder that followed the invasions of 1990 and 2003, many ancient “bricks” had visibly ‘been cut down from larger blocks with the use of circular saws’. Saw marks are an indicator of looting. These ‘saw marks constitute[d] clear evidence that the “bricks” had been removed destructively from their architectural contexts and cut down in size to facilitate their illegal transport from Iraq’.

In 2008, Berk handled a poorly-documented brick of Nebuchadnezzar from Larsa in Iraq. Berk’s brick had similar dimensions, yet ‘a more irregular margin and a poorly centered text’. Berk’s documentation comprised a thermoluminescence certificate from 2007, plus a letter from one person that attributed the brick to a purchase by another person in the “late 1960s”.

Reassuring the market, if no-one else, the letter would date the brick’s acquisition to before the “benchmark” of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. However, private possession and private trading of antiquities in Iraq have been prohibited since 1936 (unless registered, certified and monitored by the authorities).

2009

In 2009, Berk ignorantly handled a fake coin from an unknown territory, which was traded for $410,000. As Paul Barford recorded, the fake coin’s alleged collecting history asserted that it had been found since 1984, before which time, a ‘very small number’ had been found. This tentatively suggests forgery in Turkey to supply novel demand in the United States (and elsewhere in the international market), since the exposure of the Elmalı Hoard.

Also in 2009, Brand accused Berk of selling a ‘looted coin’ from Turkey, which he had ‘bought from the partner’ of Carchemish Hoard possessor Hikmet Gül.

2010

While soil is an indicator of looting, at least in 2010, one of Berk’s numismatists, Curtis Clay, was a moderator of the Original Uncleanedcoin Chat List.

Also at least in 2010, according to a moderator of the Coin Forgery Discussion List (CFDL), Cliff Laubstein, Berk was on the CFDL blacklist.

2011

In 2011, Berk (and partners in a consortium) ignorantly handled a fake coin from an unknown territory. Its authenticity was seemingly disproved by numismatists Clive Stannard and Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert. It was withdrawn during auction, where it had been expected to trade for $875,000. In the opinion of a member of the CFDL, it had been produced by a workshop in Syria.

Also in 2011, Berk ignorantly handled stolen artefacts within the United States, which had been embezzled by a (since retired) curator at the Polish Museum of America, then stolen from the embezzler’s property. The hero of the story varies between sources.

In one account, ‘the sellers told’ one of Harlan J. Berk Ltd’s dealers, Dennis J. Forgue, that ‘they [had] found the items in their [rented] Northwest Side basement’ (which was, by definition, ‘somebody else’s property’). Dennis Forgue bought them, but was ‘skeptical’ and investigated, afterwards. Then Forgue ‘alerted the FBI’ and ‘kept buying up artifacts, so the sellers didn’t get suspicious’.

In another account, when Forgue notified Berk of the sale, Berk instructed Forgue ‘to research the items for pedigree’ (in other words, to retrospectively observe due diligence). When Forgue identified the likely rightful owners, Berk contacted the museum. Then Harlan J. Berk Ltd and the Polish Museum of America collaborated to buy back the stolen goods. After a while, museum director Maria Ciesla ‘wanted to call in the FBI’, yet Berk convinced her ‘to wait as the repurchase program was working so well’. When the thieves declared their intention to offer more goods to Sotheby’s auction house, Berk alerted Sotheby’s and Ciesla alerted the FBI, then the FBI recovered the rest of the stolen property from the tenants’ residence.

‘Berk didn’t look into their provenance’

In an interview with CoinWeek in 2016, Berk declared,

I’ve never been offered anything that has come from ISIS. And if I was, I’d never buy it. One time, I was offered an antiquity that most certainly came out of a museum. I told the guy to never call me again and I sent a picture of the object to the feds [the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)]. No coin or antiquity dealer wants to trade in that stuff.

Yet, with regard to ancient coins, specifically discussing the forgery from 2011, Berk observed, the ‘chain of custody… muddies the situation…. “Generally I know who I’m buying it from, but not where I’m buying it from. Some of these coins go through four or five people before they come to the market. The supply is not a straight line.”‘

So, how would Berk know if he had ever been offered an ancient coin that had come from ISIS, or the Assad regime, or anyone else? According to his own statements, how could Berk know that he had never bought and sold an ancient coin that had come from ISIS, or the Assad regime, or anyone else?

In an interview with Andrew Curry for National Geographic in 2015, Berk excused himself for his ignorant handling of the antiquities that had been looted from Romania in the late 1990s.

Because coins are hard to trace and often stay in private collections for decades or even centuries, Berk didn’t look into their provenance (their origins or history of ownership). “Groups of coins come on the market all the time, and it’s very rare that there’s a problem…. The sellers never told us anything about the coins’ origin.”

Turkey and the United Kingdom

Drug smuggler convicted, looted antiquity repatriated

In 1996, Nevzat Telliağaoğlu/Telli was sentenced to ’25 years’ imprisonment [25 yıllık hapis cezası]’, reduced to 22 years’ imprisonment, and ‘a 3.5 million pound fine… for drug smuggling [uyuşturucu kaçakçılığı suçuyla… 3.5 milyon pound para cezası]’. (His “right-hand man” was reportedly Feridun Doğancıoğlu.) At some point, he renounced (dual) citizenship of Turkey, became a citizen of (solely) the United Kingdom and changed his name to David Telliağaoğlu/Telli.

After 11 years’ imprisonment and the recovery of 1.6 million pounds’ worth of assets, he appealed that he could not pay the remaining 1.9 million pounds, because Turkey had recovered cultural property, ‘which belonged to him and which he had insured for 2.2 million pounds [kendisine ait 2.2 milyon pounda sigorta ettirdiği]’ (although the British Museum had assigned a value of 1.5 million pounds).

He ‘claimed’ to be a ‘broker’ for the statue of Dionysus, yet was judged to be the ‘beneficial owner’, so the statue was judged to constitute part of his (illicit) assets. However, he had also ‘hidden some of his assets’. The statue may have been discounted from the calculation of his assets, once it was recognised as the property of the Republic of Turkey. The court judged that he should ‘pay the [rest of] the fine or spend 5.5 more years in prison [para cezasını ödemesine veya 5.5 yıl daha hapis yatmasına]’.

smuggling of drugs and antiquities from Turkey, laundering of money through northern Cyprus

“David Telli” distributed his profits between unnamed receivers in Turkey and bank accounts in northern Cyprus, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. In fact, as reported by Robyn Travis on London Street Gangs, the massive money-laundering enterprise provoked an investigation into Turkish and Turkish Cypriot banks in the United Kingdom, which caused ‘the closure of the Cyprus Credit Bank’, which was ‘owned by the Boyaci [sic – Boyacı] family’, who were connected to then northern Cypriot president Rauf Denktaş.

Denktaş had been the leader of paramilitary TMT when “Tremeşeli” Mehmet Ali İlkman was ‘one of TMT’s leading names [TMT’nin önde gelen isimlerinden]’. Then, Denktaş had been the leader of the Turkish Cypriot administration when İlkman was both a MİT agent and Dikmen’s assistant in the ‘systematic’ plunder of cultural property from northern Cyprus. And İlkman had been Dikmen’s assistant when Dikmen was a “dear friend” of “David”‘s brother, Edip.

‘Much’ of “David Telli”‘s £6,000,000 (£2,700,000-7,000,000) in proceeds from heroin was invested in ‘valuable ancient artefacts’, reportedly. At least sometimes, he appears to have smuggled antiquities ‘together [with] packets of heroin [birlikte eroin paketler[i]]’. Neighbours observed that he was ‘extremely quiet’ and did not give the impression of being a multimillionaire drug baron.

landmark case

The 2,200-year-old, Hellenistic bronze statue of Dionysus had been looted near Burdur or Elmalı, Turkey, and stashed in a bonded warehouse (a free port) in Geneva, Switzerland. It was first taken into the protective custody of the British Museum in 1996, then repatriated to Turkey in 2002.

Even though ‘the Directorate-General of Monuments and Museums presented documents to the court, which indicated that the object had been smuggled from Turkey [Anıtlar ve Müzeler Genel Müdürlüğü’nün eserin Türkiye’den kaçırıldığına ilişkin belgelerini mahkemeye sunmuştu]’, and ‘the judge decided in favour of Turkey on the subject of the statue [Heykelin mülkiyeti konusunda hâkim Türkiye lehine karar verdi]’, even though other illicit antiquities were known to have been handled, “David Telli” was apparently not prosecuted for smuggling or other illegal handling of stolen cultural goods.

Nonetheless, the action still constituted a ground-breaking success. It was the ‘first case of returning a national treasure to its country of origin’, through the Asset Forfeiture Division of the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office.

International criminal organisation

After a fifteen-month-long operation, in 2010, police caught the Mardin-rooted, 35-member, Üzülmez/Telli ‘gang [çete]’ or ‘international criminal organisation [uluslararası suç organizasyonu]’. Hürriyet journalist Yalçın Bayer considered that the police might have finally got the information to catch the gang from a rival criminal or a dissatisfied customer, ‘an “informal” informant who took “revenge” [“hakkı verilmeyen” bir muhbir “intikam” aldı]’.

Their operation involved a complex division of labour (işbölümü). It included ‘metal-detecting treasure-hunters [metal dedektörle define arayanlar]’; ‘local bosses [yerel patronlar]’; couriers, also known as mules or ‘jockeys [jokeyler]’; international traders; and international bosses.

At least some goods were channelled through the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) in Istanbul, Turkey, and/or smuggled through Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), to the market. The gang maintained a digital inventory (envanter) with photographs (fotoğraflar). These proved that some objects had been ‘marketed in other countries on the internet [yabancı ülkelerde internette pazarlanan]’.

Police seized 1,700 cultural objects, which were worth around €250,000,000 (TL 500,000,000). They included coins (sikkeler); sculptures (heykeller), plus fragments, such as heads of statues (heykel başları); ceramics (çömlek); glass (cam); plates (tabaklar); vases (vazolar); and imitations of historic artefacts (tarihi eserlerin imitasyonları) or, in other words, fakes and forgeries.

The investigation featured better-known names, such as the organisation’s ‘manager [in] Europe [Avrupa… yöneticisi]’, Fuat Üzülmez, and the organisation’s ‘number three [Üç numaralı]’, Fuat Aydıner. The investigation also featured easily identifiable names, such as Edip Telliağaoğlu’s nephew, who was then ‘the organisation’s leader [Örgütün lideri]’, Aziz Telliağaoğlu; ‘one of the elders of the family [ileri gelenlerinden biri]’, Hüsnü Telliağaoğlu; Ediz Telliağaoğlu; and Alpay Telliağaoğlu. They ‘collected antiquities from the four corners of Turkey and smuggled them abroad [Türkiye’nin dört bir yanından tarihi eser toplayıp yurtdışına kaçırdığı]’.

According to Sabah, the other ‘suspects, against whom cases were opened [kamu davası açılan şüpheliler]’, were İhsan Acar, Yücel Akkaya, Atilla Anakök, İbrahim Emre Aydıner, Levent Bayır, Marsel Moiz Behmoaram, Ali Çabuk, Zeynel Çimen, Arif Doğangüneş, Mehmet Faruk Erdemir, Sami Güneri Gülener, Kamer İşsever, Mustafa Karlankıç, Mehmet Muhsin Karsu, Nihat Keleş, Zahir Keleş, Bilal Keşel, Murat Kılıç, Ömer Kurhan, Ayhan Külekçi, Mehmet Nevfel Mendi, Sezair Oktay, Harun Yadigar Savman, Hüseyin Taç, Ethem Topçu, Piort Dmitrievich Vornicov (Piotr Dmitrievich Vornikov or Pyotr Dmitrievich Vornikov?), Murat Yetke, Ercan Yıldız, Bülent Yılmaz and Hüseyin Yılmaz. Although he was not charged, it was alleged that Ataturk Airport worker Alpaslan Kılıç assisted illegal export.

Throughout this post, evidence has demonstrated connections between antiquities trafficking and other forms of serious crime in Turkey and beyond. Notably, trafficking of antiquities was linked with trafficking of drugs and arms, when the smuggling of drugs from Asia through Turkey to Europe was ‘run by mafia groups’, which were ‘closely controlled by the MIT’ and which ‘close[ly] cooperat[ed] with the police and the army’, and when the smuggling of arms was linked with facilitation of political violence within Turkey as well as elsewhere. (Far from denying their competitive involvement in drug smuggling, in 1996, the police and MİT each named some of the other organisation’s protected criminals.)

Particularly alongside the evidence in the other posts in this series, this evidence appears to reinforce the impression that, at least historically, in Turkey and Turkey-occupied northern Cyprus, ‘the smuggling of antiquities [was] bound up with the smuggling of other commodities within an organised criminal and deep state economy‘.

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2 Responses to “antiquities, drugs and arms – organised crime, intelligence operations and dirty wars in Turkey and beyond”

  1. You might also mention there are plenty of ancient coin collectors in all the countries you mention. In some, like Bulgaria and Italy, there are also very large internal markets. In Italy, selling ancient coins is quite legal and there are plenty of brick and mortar stores that sell them as well as some prominent auction houses.

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