In what has been a steady and systematic push by the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay on the restitution of cultural artefacts from museums of the world, has now culminated in a legal test case due to be lodged before the European Court of Human Rights on 30th January 2013.

The legal action has been brought by Istanbul lawyer Remzi Kazmaz, along with 30 lawyers acting for the town of Bodrum and with a petition of over 118,000 signatures they seek to use Human Rights law to challenge the legality of the British Museum’s title to two sculptures from the ancient wonder the Halicarnassus.

The Mausoleum was built for Mausolus, king of Caria. It was a 40 metre high monument created in 350BC by Greek sculptors that depicted important historical and mythological scenes and was crowned with an immense four horse chariot on top of a stepped pyramid.

At the centre of the argument is a spectacular horse’s head from the monument that is in the British Museum, London and was acquired in the 19th century.

The mausoleum is thought to have collapsed during an earthquake in medieval times and in this period crusaders took some of the sculptures to their castle in Bodrum. The British Ambassador at Constantinople in 1846 is said to have recovered this property and then given it to the British Museum. Some of the other sculptures were also taken to the British Museum following archaeological site excavations in the 1850s.

The precise details of the legal claim have not yet been provided but what is clear is that the claim will state that the removal of the artefacts from Turkish soil was not legal and will seek the return of the cultural heritage to its place of origin in Bodrum in Turkey.

It is reported in the Guardian, that UK Human Rights lawyer, Gwendolen Morgan from Bindmans LLP has suggested that the Turkish lawyers may rely on Article 1, 1st Protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights, which states “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.”

It is further reported that a spokesperson for the British Museum has confirmed that they have not yet heard about the legal case and therefore were unable to comment on it, however she said the British Museum had legal Turkish permits, called “firmans” issued by the Ottoman authorities that not only granted permissions for the site excavations but also for the removal of the artefacts.

An interesting aspect of this case will be how the European Court will interpret the domestic law that was in force during the Ottoman Empire in the 1850s when the artefacts are said to have been illegally removed.

How new law interprets and addresses old domestic law will make for a fascinating test case for cultural heritage cases.

The significance of this case and its potential ramifications for world museums cannot be underestimated as Turkey has now raised claims with numerous international museums.

As explained in an article by The Art Newspaper by Martin Bailey published in June this year, the list for the return of antiquities is extensive, with claims having been brought against the Louvre Museum, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the John Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles) and Cleveland Museum of Art, amongst a few other American museums.

There is another claim against the British Museum for the return of a first century BC stele, carved stone slab that depicts King Antiochus I Epiphanes greeting Herakles-Verethragna. It was found in a field in Selik, near Samat. It was acquired by archaeologist Lord Woolley in 1911 whom had permission to dig in Carchemish and then given to the British Museum.

According to an article in Voice of America News by Dorian Jones posted in September this year, Turkey is engaged in an active and arguably aggressive campaign to reclaim its cultural heritage as there is a drive to build new archaeological museums across Turkey, in particular there is a new museum in Izmir and a policy to build one of the largest archaeological museums in Ankara.

This is not just driven by commercial interests, to boost the economy through tourism but is also seen as a Nationalistic campaign that is attracting wide popular appeal. As reported in the Voice of America article, according to Andrew Finkel (author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know), these claims are “a matter of national pride.”

Support from the highest echelons of government is reinforced by the fact that the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has been endorsing these restitution claims.

Turkey is also riding high, following three recent successful restitution claims against international museums and is following in the footsteps of Italy who have also made successful claims against American museums.

Turkey has also been using a stick and carrot approach against Western archaeologists by refusing participation in continued excavations and research unless cultural property is returned and most recently by refusing to participate in loan agreements to museums, in particular the British Museum was denied loan requests for a proposed exhibition on the Uluburun ship (the oldest recovered shipwreck) discovered off the Turkish coast.

Notwithstanding Turkey’s clear desire to be part of the EU, they have not strayed from this issue. Some argue that the Turkish authorities’ way of fighting these cultural battles may be to the detriment of a more pragmatic stance, instead, for example long term loan agreements ought to be negotiated which would encourage good will between the museums.

Some argue there are more concerning issues taking place in Turkey – for instance the current looting that takes place from important sites and the failure to impose proper measures here. This is a cause championed by Ozgen Acar, a columnist for Turkish Newspaper, the Cumhurriyet.

There are also calls for Turkey to put its own house in order and address real human rights issues that continue to plight Turkey. (The treatment of Kurds, Honour Killings and domestic violence against women – I say no more.)

Despite the political backdrop there appears to be a renewed vigour for claims for restitution worldwide, Turkey for example has an agreement with Greece to try to pursue these claims.

American Museums are also being targeted and face claims in particular from Cambodia and Nigeria.

As international law develops and the political climate changes the return of a nation’s culture is being used as a bargaining chip in the wider political debates. Many Countries now see the benefit of having truly international museums that attract huge numbers of tourists and therefore present strong moral, cultural and economic arguments for their right to reclaim property.

Watch this space for updates on the cultural claims that are now being brought, for an update on this interesting ECHR test case and for further in depth analysis of cultural heritage law.

Jessica Franses