Geneva (Switzerland) – Priceless Sarcophagus on exhibit before being returned to Turkey


An ancient priceless sarcophagus-like Artefact dating from the 2nd century AD has been returned to Turkey after an unprecedented international collaboration. The sarcophagus, which left Turkey in the 1960s, is a major archaeological artefact weighing more than 3 tons and depicting in detail the Twelve Labors of Hercules.

The artefact was part of the inventory of the specialized antiquities dealer Phoenix Ancient Art. The Federal Culture Office in Bern, Switzerland, stated back in 2011 that the sarcophagus originated from the region of the ancient Turkish city of Dokimion, today Antalya.

The sculpture was made at the end of the second century, a time when the entire area was still under Roman rule. The Geneva authorities termed the sarcophagus “an object of infinite cultural value”. Its return came about as a result of unprecedented collaboration between academic and governmental authorities in Switzerland and Turkey. The contribution of the globally renowned antiquities dealer Phoenix Ancient Art was also invaluably recognized in the process.

The sarcophagus was held by Phoenix Ancient Art since the 80s, and while its origin had been attested by various documents, an inquiry to fully assess the provenance of the object was initiated. It is therefore after several years of administrative procedures that the sarcophagus will officially be sent to Turkey in September, after being exhibited for two months at the Geneva ‘Bastions’ University.

The exhibition was inaugurated yesterday, on Monday June 19th, in conditions of the tightest security and with the notable presence of Irina Bokova (Director-General of UNESCO), Pierre Maudet (Member of the executive council of the State and Canton of Geneva in charge of Economy & Security), Nabi Avci (Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism), Yves Flückiger and Marc-André Renold (respectively Rector of the University of Geneva & Director of its Art Law center), Jean-Yves Marin (Director of the Geneva Musée d’Art & d’Histoire) and Ali Aboutaam (co-owner of Phoenix Ancient Art).

During her address, Irina Bokova insisted on the positive international collaboration between all parties – a recurrent theme in all of the speeches. Ali Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art confirmed those academic positions: “We were able to find a common ground with the authorities and researchers, break a deadlock and find a positive resolution for the safe return of this exceptional sarcophagus. It was important for us that the object be cleared of any suspicion of illicit trafficking and to make sure the work of art was given to Turkey in the context of a properly regulated official process.”

Seeing the excitement of all those present in the ‘’Salle des Moulages”, the underground exhibition room where the sarcophagus is being shown, and which looks more like a vault than a museum due to security, it is clear that this antiquity is highly sensitive not only as a work of art but also diplomatically. It is only when you witness individuals from different cultures and backgrounds such as Nabi Avci, Marc-André Renold and Abi Aboutaam shaking hands and smiling at the achievement that one realizes, as Irina Bokova put it in her address “the great power of cultural diplomacy in building bridges”!

The Sarcophagus will be exhibited from June 22nd till September 2nd 2017 at Uni Bastions, Geneva University, Switzerland before going on permanent exhibit in Antalya, Turkey.

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