A Rare Quran seized by police in the UK was taken at gunpoint from Istanbul in 2015. A British judge rules on the return of the important cultural artefact to Turkey.
An armed robbery six years ago started the eventful journey for a beautiful and rare copy of a 16th century Quran. When the artefact was listed for sale at Christie’s in 2017, the Quran from Turkey was expected to fetch anything between £120,000 and £180,000.
Police from Turkey notified British authorities that the item was stolen and smuggled out of Turkey when they saw it appear in the sale of Islamic and Indian art. Out of the four men involved, three were convicted for their role in the armed robbery, with one getting a 12-year sentence. They are currently serving prison sentences for their vicious attack against the owner. During the armed robbery, they used pepper spray and wrapped their victim’s face in tape. The fourth armed robber was never caught.
From the moment the Quran sale was stopped, authorities in Turkey have sought its return from the UK. Moreover, in August 2021 an application made by Zaher Al Hajjeh from Lebanon, who claimed to be the legitimate owner, was dismissed by a judge at London’s High Court.
Al Hajjeh claimed that the police misled a judge at the Westminster Magistrates Court to issue a warrant to seize the Quran from Christie’s. The process was started when he sent Christie’s a demand for the return of the holy book to him or else, to offer him compensation for its value, which he estimated at £750,000.
Dubious Quran Purchase
The striking Quran is signed by one of the most celebrated Turkish calligraphers of that time, Mustafa Dede. It has an ornate cover, believed to have been added about a century and a half later, probably around the mid-18th century.
Back in 2015, the Quran’s owner, Mehmet Çir, was approached by a gang of robbers in Turkey who pretended they were interested in its purchase. The robbers were identified and tried on forensic evidence, but the Quran wasn’t found. Somehow it made its way to Surrey where it was purchased by Al Hajjeh.
Mr. Al Hajjeh claims he purchased the Quran at the Oriental Rug Gallery in Surrey for £4,000. He claimed in court that the Quran was part of a shipment of eight items that had arrived in the UK from Australia.
Turkish Authorities Take Swift Action
When the Quran was presented by Christie’s, the Turkish Embassy in London immediately notified them that the item was the stolen Turkish Quran. Additionally, Interpol Ankara also contacted Interpol Manchester on the same day with a request for authorities in the UK to ensure the item’s sale was stopped and the necessary steps were taken to ensure its return to Turkey.
Christie’s immediately removed the Quran from the sale. They kept it in their possession for two years until they received a legal letter asking for its return or compensation of its values to the supposed owner. They immediately contacted the Metropolitan Police, who acted promptly by getting a warrant to seize the Quran. Al Hajjeh immediately counteracted by claiming that the police had misled the judge into giving them a search warrant.
According to The National News, Justice William Davis heard that not only should the item never have been taken out of Turkey according to Turkish law, but that its removal was a criminal offence.
The judge concluded that there were “strong grounds to believe the artefact placed at Christie’s for auction by Al Hajjeh was the stolen Qur’an.”
Furthermore, the Arab News reports that the judge added: “the claims of how the Quran came to be in Al Hajjeh’s possession, making him the owner, could only be viewed with substantial scepticism.”
Mr. Al Hajjeh claimed the warrant was incorrectly issued, and on those grounds, he applied for a judicial review to London’s High Court. His application was dismissed by Justice Davis saying that the complaint of the Quran’s return to Turkey by the claimant is unconnected to the validity of the warrant.
Christie’s auction house also issued a statement indicating that as the third party in the matter, they had no further comment to add since they complied with the Metropolitan Police requirements.
The legality of how some of the world’s artefacts are procured often come into question, making it important that resources are made available to track them. Thankfully, this significant piece of Turkish Islamic history is about to return to its country of origin, proving how important vigilance is when it comes to the sale of artefacts. When artefacts are returned to the region they come from and available for all to admire, they help form an important part of the education process about the country’s history and culture.