The Turkish government has called for the return of a dozen ancient Roman mosaics currently housed at the Wolfe Arts Center at Bowling Green State University. The provenance of the mosaics, which were purchased by the university in 1965 from a New York gallery owner, was called into question by BGSU ancient history professor Stephanie Langin-Hooper while conducting research for a proposed paper on the artworks.
With the aid of Brown University professor Rebecca Molholt, an authority on Roman mosaics, Langin-Hooper’s investigations have led to the hypothesis that the pavements may have originated in Zeugma, an ancient city that was subject to rampant looting during the 1960s.
In a press release dated February 7, 2012, BGSU President Mary Ellen Mazey stated “of course we will do the right thing,” but what is the right thing in this case? Because the mosaics were purchased in 1965, strictly speaking they do not fall under the authority of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Turkey could claim the mosaics as stolen or illegally exported cultural objects under the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, though the United States has yet to formally recognize this document.
In addition, one could question whether these works should be considered Turkish cultural property in the first place. Because the mosaics were created during the second or third century when Turkey was part of the Roman Empire, could Italy have a legitimate claim to these ancient pavements? In fact, Zeugma was originally a Macedonia settlement, so one could argue that the Macedonians or Greeks could claim the mosaics as examples of their cultural heritage.
The outcome of this fascinating case could set a precedent for the future handling of looted antiquities that fall beyond the temporal scope of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.