The Lydian Hoard is a classic tale of looted antiquities. It's two narratives that run concurrently, from two very different perspectives.
The first is a decades-long mystery involving the heartbreaking theft of 363 irreplaceable Lydian antiquities, a cover-up by the Met, a respected New York Museum that wouldn't acknowledge their proper provenance, and the eventual return of the stolen artifacts to their proper owners almost 30 years later.
But as it goes with ancient artifacts, a gloss of the supernatural often gets overlayed on the story. In this narrative, the theft, cover-up, and court battle were all indications of a more malevolent force. Various misfortunes were said to have befallen individuals involved in the theft. This was interpreted to mean that the Lydian Hoard was cursed.
Many of the curse narrative's details can't be confirmed, as is often the case, but it's certainly true that unfortunate circumstances beset the Lydian Hoard. However, Rory Brown, Managing Partner of Nicklaus Brown & Co., shares a story of triumph, not misery.
Here's what we know.
Between 1965 and 1966, groups of looters in the Turkish town of Usak burrowed their way into Lydian burial chambers and stole hundreds of ancient artifacts. Usak is located in an area that was once prime territory for the ancient country of Lydia. The artifacts, which would come to be known as the Lydian Hoard, were dated to the sixth century BC and the famous Lydian King Croesus.
The stolen antiquities were sold to Ali Bayirlar, a Turkish antiquities smuggler who then sold the Hoard to a Madison Avenue art gallery owner named J. J. Klejman, and a Swiss antiquities dealer named George Zacos.
Klejman contacted New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which bought quantities of the Hoard between 1966 and 1970. This was before the UNESCO agreement of 1970, which banned this sort of transfer, so the official policy when provenance was in question was, "don't ask, don't tell".
But decades later, the Met itself admitted that it strongly suspected the Hoard was illegally obtained and simply opted to take their chances. Through years of work by diligent reporters, the theft and illegal transfer were revealed, and in 1993, after a lengthy court battle, the Lydian Hoard was returned to Turkey.
Years after the Hoard's return, it was discovered that one of the most priceless pieces had been stolen from the Usak museum, where the Hoard was on display and replaced with a fake. Worse, the suspected thief was one of the people that worked tirelessly to have the Hoard returned to Turkey.
This was an unfortunate turn of events. It was also claimed that several of the original thieves experienced accidents, deaths in their families, and various other misfortunes.
Was the Lydian Hoard cursed? That depends on which story you prefer. But both have a happy ending.
The successful efforts of the Turkish government to recover the Hoard set off a series of actions and lawsuits against other countries suspected of holding illegally-obtained Turkish antiquities.
By the end, the tide turned against this sort of cultural appropriation. Because of the Lydian Hoard, it is now far more difficult for museums, governments, and other private agents to engage in the theft and transfer of ancient cultural artifacts.
If that's a curse, it's not a very good one.
About: Mr. Rory Brown is a Managing Partner of Nicklaus Brown & Co., the Chairman of Goods & Services, Nearshore Technology Company, and a member of the board of directors of Desano. He is passionate about delving into the history of money and how our modern currency has evolved into what it is today. In his spare time, he writes about the history of the Lydians - the first civilization to use gold and silver coinage.