UK court stops Christie's sale of stolen 16th century Quran smuggled out of Turkey

Turkish owner seeks return following robbery

A 16th century Quran has been saved from an auction in London at Christie's. Alamy
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A 16th century Quran that authorities say was stolen in a robbery and smuggled out of Turkey has been withdrawn from an auction in London.

Police in Turkey raised the alarm after seeing the Quran, which was said to date from the 16th century and was signed by Mustafa Dede, a celebrated calligrapher of the time, for sale in a Christie's catalogue.

Turkish authorities are now seeking its return as a cultural artefact.

A judge at London’s High Court dismissed an application by Zaher Al Hajjeh, from Lebanon, for its return and damages.

Mr Al Hajjeh claimed he was the legitimate owner.

He had taken the case to court on the grounds that the police had, he claimed, misled a judge at Westminster Magistrates Court into issuing a warrant to seize the Quran from the auction house.

The book, which features an ornate cover believed to have been added in the mid-18th century, was stolen in 2015 from Mehmet Çir in Istanbul by a gang pretending to be interested in purchasing it.

He was sprayed in the face with pepper spray and had tape wrapped around his head before the gang made off with the book.

Forensic evidence later identified the men, one of whom was jailed for 12 and a half years.

Mr Al Hajjeh claimed he paid £4,000 for the book from The Oriental Rug Gallery in Surrey, which said it had come as part of a shipment of eight items from Australia, and put it up for auction in 2017.

“Christie's were notified in a letter from the Turkish Embassy in London that the Quran belonged originally to Turkey,” the court heard.

“As such it should not have been taken out of Turkey by reference to Turkish Law. Its removal from Turkey amounted to a criminal offence.

“Christie's were asked to stop the sale of the artefact and to return it immediately to Turkey. On the same day Interpol Ankara contacted Interpol Manchester requesting that the competent authorities in the UK stop the sale of the artefact in order that it could be returned to Turkey.”

It led to Christie's removing it from sale and for two years it has remained in their possession until they received a legal letter from Mr Al Hajjeh asking for its return.

They then contacted the police who applied for a warrant to seize it.

Mr Al Hajjeh applied to London’s High Court for a judicial review into the issuing of the warrant on the grounds it was incorrectly issued.

However, Mr Justice William Davis dismissed his application.

“If application for this warrant had been obtained in relation to a theft which had occurred somewhere in England and Wales, it would have been entirely unexceptional,” he said.

“The district judge would have concluded that the Quran almost certainly was stolen property and that the claimant would have to press his claim [if any] at some later stage of the proceedings.

“The real complaint of the claimant is that the effect of the issue of the warrant is that the Quran will be returned to Turkey where his rights will be difficult to assert. That complaint is unconnected to the validity of the warrant.

“The issue of the warrant was not invalid. The district judge would have issued the warrant in any event. I would dismiss this claim for judicial review of his decision.”

In a statement Christie’s said it had "complied with the requirement" of the Metropolitan Police.

Updated: August 17, 2021, 3:25 PM