Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property in Turkish Law

Turkish law has a broad definition of “antiquities” and makes it a crime to remove any from the country. It’s illegal to buy, sell, possess or export from Turkey antiquities (such as carpets, coins, icons, colored tiles and ceramics, paintings, statues and sculptures, metal objects, etc.) more than one or two centuries old. At departure, tourists may be asked to present a receipt and the certificate. Failure to have them can result in arrest and jail. Offenders are prosecuted. Penalties are stiff, and usually include a prison sentence for serious offenses. In case one is associated with trade of antiquities in any way, even by innocent error, we advice those who are under investigation or on trial to get professional support by hiring a criminal defence attorney in Turkey.

archaeological objects Turkey

Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property in Turkish Law

Turkey, undisputedly possesses a rich cultural heritage, has conceded that illicit excavations by both foreigners and locals have been one of the country’s most important issues for over a century. Cultural property of Turkey represents the human history and achievements of societies. In its physical form, it includes, among other things, antiquities, art, artifacts, and architecture. Because of its physical nature, it may be under constant threat of theft or damage—even destruction. Art and antiquities may be forged resulting in fakes being sold to unsuspecting victims


Turkish law has a broad definition of “antiquities” and makes it a crime to remove any from the country. Offenders are prosecuted. All historic sites, and everything in them, on the grounds, or in the water, are the property of the Turkish Government. If one buy antiquities, should use only authorized dealers and obtain museum certificate for each item they are authorized to sell. At departure, tourists may be asked to present a receipt and the certificate. Failure to have them can result in arrest and jail.

Main categories of heritage:

  • cultural heritage:
    • tangible cultural heritage:
      • immovable cultural heritage (monuments, archaeological sites, etc.)
      • movable cultural heritage (paintings, coins, archaeological objects, etc.)
      • underwater cultural heritage (shipwrecks, underwater cities, etc.
    • intangible cultural heritage (oral traditions, performing arts, rituals, etc.)
  • natural heritage (natural sites, physical, biological or geological formations, etc.).


Turkey ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (“1970 Convention”) on April 21, 1981, and the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (“World Heritage Convention”) on March 16, 1983.

Monitoring and patroling archeological sites

The Gendarmerie and police frequently monitor and patrol known archeological sites and other areas where cultural property is known to exist. Turkey’s policing units inspect borders, docks, airports, and customs stations, and set up routine check points on major roads.  They often rely on the general public to notify them of illegal excavations.

If theft from a museum, conservation site, or collector, or an illicit sale of protected cultural property has taken place, the General Directorate of Museums is responsible for immediately notifying KOM and its provincial agencies, the Ministry of Interior’s Interpol-Europol Department, the Ministry of Customs and Trade, the Gendarmerie General Command, the Turkish Coast Guard, Museum Directorates, and other collectors and museums of the theft or sale, and providing them with as much information as possible.  The General Directorate of Museums must ensure that the theft is thoroughly investigated by these institutions.

Once notified, the Police and Gendarmerie all over the country are tasked with searching for the item, seizing it when found, and handing it over to the relevant state museum or research facility for identification and safe-keeping. Those involved are detained, and may be subject to criminal prosecution pursuant to Articles 67 and 68 of Act on the Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property numbered 2863.

International cooperation

The General Directorate of Museums and the General Directorate of Customs Enforcement also coordinate with foreign law enforcement and international organizations, including Interpol and the World Customs Organization (“WCO”). Once the Interpol-Europol branch of the Turkish National Police has been informed of the theft or illegal sale, the cultural property in question is put on the Interpol’s Stolen Arts Database. 

If discovered in another country, Turkey makes a formal request for the artifact’s return, often, but not always, pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention.  At this point, unless it wants to make a legal claim, Turkey, like many other source countries, has to rely substantially on the willingness of host countries, and individuals and institutions within them, to negotiate the restitution of its cultural property.

Private collectors

Turkey also benefits from the good will of private collectors, who have agreed to donate the objects to Turkish museums. However, in some cases Turkey has to resort to the courts to regain its cultural property, retaining the services of prominent international attorneys and law firms to help them do so. Despite Turkish authorities’ efforts to halt illegal excavations and smuggling, Turkish cultural objects that should not have been exported still find their way to auction houses in different parts of the World.

The hard task of tracking movable and easily concealed property falls to a group of individuals whose manpower and resources are simply not sufficient to police the large array of ancient artifacts and sites within its borders.  This, coupled with the number of locals who view cultural property as a good source of income, and the large flow of expats and tourists in and out of the country, demonstrates the significant obstacles that Turkey faces in preventing the illicit export of its cultural treasures, and tracking the artifacts and smugglers once they have been stolen. Turkey itself admits that while border and coast patrols are performed, it lacks the infrastructure and resources to monitor the entirety of its vast coastline.


Persons who demolish, degrade, destroy, make disappear or, in any manner, damage immovable cultural and natural property to be protected or give rise to such acts by intent shall be punished with a prison sentence of two to five years and judicial fine up to five thousand days. If such acts are committed with the intent of smuggling cultural and natural property to be protected out of the country the above penalties shall be increased one fold.(Art. 65)

Persons who issue documents in contradiction with the prohibitions shall be punished with a prison sentence from one to three years and judicial fine, if other laws do not foresee heavier penalties for this crime. Persons who intentionally do not declare and notify duly by the deadline shall be punished with a prison sentence of three months to one year and judicial fine. (Art 66)

Trade cultural property

Persons who contradict with the obligation to report about the cultural and natural properties intentionally and without excuse shall be punished with a prison sentence of six months to three years.(Art 67/1)

Persons who tender, sell, offer, buy, accept the cultural and natural properties which haven’t been reported shall be punished with a prison sentence of two to five years and judicial fine up to five thousand days. Persons who trade the movable cultural properties which trade hasn’t been prohibited without permission shall be punished with a prison sentence of six months to three years.(Art 67/2)

Persons who take abroad the cultural and natural properties contradictory to the Law shall be punished with a prison sentence of five to twelve years and judicial fine up to five thousand days. (Art 68)

Unlicensed survey, excavation and sounding

Persons who sound and excavate in order to find cultural properties without a license shall be punished with a prison sentence of two to five years. However, if the excavation or sounding location is not a preservation site or any other area to be protected according to the Law, one third of the penalty will be reduced.(Art 74/1)

Persons who hunt for treasures without permission shall be punished with a prison sentence of three months to two years. However, if these acts are committed with the aim of smuggling cultural properties out of the country or by the persons who have the duty to protect the cultural properties, the penalty will be increased up to two fold. .(Art 74/2)

In case the person delivers the cultural property found by committing the crimes to the local civil authority before the investigation starts, the court might reduce the penalty to two-thirds. .(Art 74/3)

In case the person who hunts for treasures without license, explains the names of individuals who drive him to commit such a crime by ensuring the necessary equipments and makes them caught until the prosecution starts, the court might not only reduce the penalty, but also decide not to give any penalties. .(Art 74/4)

Commercial and corporate art-related transactions

We are one of the few law firms based in Turkey dedicated to the cultural heritage sector. We assist collectors in taking proactive measures to prevent issues further down the line (i.e., inheritance, sale) by advising on due diligence practices prior to the purchase of art and antiquities or in researching and documenting objects already in their collections. Our attorneys are experienced in commercial and corporate art-related transactions.

We regularly advise on arts-related matters concerning copyright and trademark, including applications for state protections and infringement litigation. We advise on domestic and international import and export restrictions for art and antiquities, both for works on the market and objects circulating temporarily on loan.

We have years of experience litigating and advising on matters for our art world clients–from museums, galleries, and auction houses to major collectors, nonprofits, and artists.

Please contact our team leader!


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