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Stolen Koran was offered to Christie's

Stolen Koran was offered to Christie's
(Times of london: http://www.the-times.co.uk/ )

SCOTLAND YARD is investigating claims that a Turkish gang tried to smuggle a
stolen 11th-century gold-embroidered Koran into Britain, to sell at an auction
house. A man, one of three arrested in the self-declared Turkish Republic of
Northern Cyprus over attempts to export antiquities, was found to have a fax
from a director of Christie's inviting him to bring the Koran to its London
saleroom. According to police in Northern Cyprus the manuscript was recovered
two months ago when a Turkish Cypriot businessman, aged 36, one of the three,
was arrested as he boarded a plane to Britain. The case of the missing "Topkapi
Koran" shows the increasing dangers facing British art dealers and auction
houses in being offered stolen art. Police say it is a fast-growing
international crime. The manuscript had been stolen from the Topkapi Palace
museum in Istanbul last year. There was outrage in Turkey over the lax security
when it was realised there were no alarms on the glass display case. The thief
had spent the night in the museum and walked out with the Koran as the museum
reopened for business next morning. Art dealers have confirmed that the Topkapi
Koran could have fetched hundreds of thousands in a private sale. It is
understood that one of the three arrested in Cyprus had contacted Christie's
asking them to sell the handwritten Koran. The Yard's Organised Crime Group is
studying correspondence between Christie's and the man. There is no suggestion
that Christie's behaved in any way improperly. Its London office had been sent
photographs of the Koran. A spokesman for Scotland Yard said it was liaising
with Christie's, which "has offered their full co-operation during our
investigation". A spokesman for Christie's said: "We have consulted and worked
with the art and antiques squad from Scotland Yard. We very much co-operated
from the outset." Officials at Christie's refused to say what part, if any, they
played in the undercover operation in Cyprus to recover the Koran. As well as
the three men arrested there a middle-aged man from North London, believed to be
a contact of the three, was arrested in Britain on suspicion of handling stolen
goods but released on bail. A lawyer on Cyprus, Mentesh Aziz, acting for the
three men there, told The Times that an associate of one of them had contacted
the auctioneers. A fax was then sent to one of the three on May 24 by William
Robinson, director of Christie's Islamic art and carpet department, who noted
the seller's wish for a "private sale". Thanking him for two earlier faxes, he
added: "From these, I gather that the Koran is under your control." In the next
paragraph Mr Robinson wrote: "While I am not able to guarantee a successful sale
by the end of this week, I will proceed with the sale as quickly as I possibly
can. We have a number of clients who would be interested to own such a
spectacular piece. In order to recommend it to them, however, I must see the
original. This is partly to be able to know exactly what I am recommending to
our valued clients." This fax was forwarded to the Organised Crime Group soon
after the operation at Ercan airport. Officials at Christie's would not say last
night if their suspicions were raised when first offered the Koran. The North
London man has been bailed until later this month as detectives intensify their
international investigation. They are co-operating with security chiefs of
Northern Cyprus, a republic recognised only by Turkey. Of the three men arrested
in Northern Cyprus two have pleaded guilty to illegal possession of antiquities
and failing to declare them. Both Muhlis Ciftci, 37, and Metin Karahan, 35. have
been jailed, although given lenient sentences instead of the ten years they
could have faced. Ciftci received two years for illegal possession of
antiquities and another year for failing to declare imported antiquities.
Karahan was given 18 months on the first charge and nine months on the second.
The third man Gurdal Mehmetcik, who was allegedly caught with the Topkapi Koran
in his possession, faces three charges: illegal possession, failure to declare
and attempting to export antiquities.He has pleaded not guilty to all three and
his trial was adjourned until November. Mr Aziz, for the three suspects in
Northern Cyprus, said that Mr Mehmetcik claims he did not know that it was the
stolen Koran, had not intended personally to take it to Britain and was the
victim of a police attempt to "trap him into an offence". Northern Cyprus has
long been regarded as a favourite route for art smugglers. The Koran has been
returned to the Topkapi Palace museum. The ornate manuscript was written by
Osman el-Huseyin and was a prime exhibit. While referred to as a Koran in the
Christie's fax and the Turkish Cypriot media, Mr Aziz said that the rare
handwritten text was part of an "encyclopaedia" in 14 chapters explaining verses
from the Koran. The book recovered in Northern Cyprus was the tenth chapter, one
of three chapters in the world that has survived the centuries, Mr Aziz said. An
official from the Topkapi confirmed to police that it had been stolen from the
museum, which has the most extensive collection of antique Korans in the world.
The document was scripted in 1091 under the Saljuks, a Turkmen dynasty that was
a key force in western Asia from the 11th to 13th centuries. A leading British
dealer said last night that the case showed the difficulties of keeping check on
items stolen worldwide. He said that, even though he specialises in Islamic
manuscripts, he had been unaware of this theft. Mark Dalrymple, chairman of the
Council for the Prevention of Art Theft, said that there was "a gradually
mounting awareness that auctioneers and dealers really do need to ask questions"
about a work's provenance before entering into any transaction.

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