Not only are most of the stolen items from the 363-piece Croesus Treasures still missing. But one of the men arrested in the plot is the same man who was hailed in 1993 as a hero for bringing back the collection (dating from 560 to 546 B.C.) from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art after a lengthy, multimillion-dollar legal battle. Turkish curator Kazim Akbiyikoglu, along with six others, was arrested for stealing the famous Croesus gold brooch (shaped like a seahorse) and several coins and replacing them with well-crafted fakes.
The theft might have gone unnoticed but for an anonymous tip-off to a government official in Usak, the town in western Turkey where the artifacts originated and were housed in a small museum. By the time officials had called in experts to authenticate the artifacts, the objects were long gone, disappearing via middlemen in Istanbul into a global smuggling network, culture ministry officials said. Interpol is on their trail.
The heist was a wake-up call for Turkey, with its rich storehouse of antiquities, and has helped expose the shoddy state of museums across the country. Culture minister Atilla Koc last week ordered a nationwide inventory of museums. Several institutions are now being investigated for losses. The inquiry has already produced results; the manager of the depot at another Turkish museum in south-central Turkey was arrested Tuesday after 545 ancient coins were switched with fakes on his watch.
"We have to look for a silver lining," a senior culture ministry official told TIME. "The Usak theft is a tragedy, but it could be a turning point. Countering theft is now a strategic priority; we are determined to ensure that this doesn't happen again."
The heist may bolster the arguments of critics of the repatriation movement, which has been growing of late. In February, the Met agreed to return to Italy 21 artifacts that were illegally excavated. Both Italy and Greece are seeking the return of objects at the Getty Museum, and Peru is demanding that Yale University return artifacts that were taken from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in the early 1900s.
Supporters of repatriation argue that theft alone isn't reason enough to give up the fight to return such important cultural artifacts to their rightful birth places. "Of course museums like those in Turkey need to be improved and more people need to have access to these works," says Gul Pulhan, a Yale-educated Near Eastern archeologist and assistant professor at Istanbul's Koc University. "But the solution is not to insist on this idea that richer nations are more entitled to these artifacts."