Roman Empire-era coffin​ set to go home to Turkey, lawyers say

GENEVA -- Lawyers say a Roman Empire-era coffin depicting the 12 labors of Hercules is set to go home to Turkey, ending a legal battle over a prized artifact that had mysteriously turned up in Geneva’s secretive customs-office warehouse years ago.

The Inanna Art Services, a private cultural goods importer that had legal possession of the three-ton marble sarcophagus, had tried for months to block the restitution before deciding two weeks ago “to contribute to the return” by abandoning its efforts in Swiss courts, said Didier Bottge, a lawyer for the importer, in a phone interview on Tuesday. 

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From his clients’ viewpoint, “the case is closed,” said Bottge. Inanna had appealed a decision in September 2015 by the Geneva’s public prosecutor’s office to hand over what it called the “priceless” sarcophagus to Turkey.

The planned handover, expected sometime in the coming months, marks a successful cooperation between Swiss and Turkish authorities at a time of tensions between their two countries. Swiss authorities are investigating whether any laws were broken when protesters against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend held up a banner bearing the words “Kill Erdogan,” as well as allegations of spying by people linked to Turkey in the Alpine nation.

The decision follows a nearly seven-year legal saga for the sarcophagus after it turned up in the secretive Geneva Free Ports warehouse. Cultural officials have said the coffin, showing scenes like Hercules strangling the Nemean Lion and killing the Hydra, is one of 12 of its kind known in the world. It’s been traced to the Roman city of Dokimeion, thought to have been in the modern-day province of Antalya in Turkey. 

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After La Tribune de Geneve newspaper first reported last week that the sarcophagus would go home, Turkey’s consulate in Geneva issued a statement over the weekend expressing its “satisfaction” about the decision. It pointed to investigations by Geneva and Antalya prosecutors that indicated that the sarcophagus was taken out of the country after being unearthed in “illegal” archaeological digs in the 1960s on the site of the necropolis in the ancient town of Perga in Antalya.

It is not clear how the sarcophagus ended up under the legal possession of Inanna or how it came to the warehouse. French authorities have criticized Switzerland’s free port system, saying their opaque nature means they are places where stolen art can be squirreled away.

The Turkish consulate said the sarcophagus will go on a public exhibition before its transfer to the Archeological Museum in Antalya.

Lawyer Marc-Andre Renold, an expert in cultural artifacts who represented the Turkish government, said the monetary value of the sarcophagus was estimated at “several million” francs (dollars).