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Archaeology's Trojan War: The artist who took on Schliemann

Osman Hamdi, a 19th-century Ottoman painter whose works sold at record prices earlier this year, also saved artifacts from being smuggled out of Turkey by foreign archaeologists.

Armed with deep pockets for offering generous bribes and a network of European dignitaries that included German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to pull some strings, Heinrich Schliemann had little to fear from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire as he went about raiding the treasures of Homeric Troy. Throughout the 1870s, the German archaeologist smuggled tons of artifacts and gold from Hisarlik, a site near the Dardanelles Straits, including a headdress allegedly worn by Helen of Troy and a lot that he erroneously insisted was the treasure trove of King Priam. Some of these artifacts can currently be viewed at the British Museum in the exhibition “Troy: Myth and Reality.”

A few corridors from the Troy exhibit, a large oil painting shows a young woman kneeling before a lectern holding a Quran and a backdrop of elaborately painted turquoise tiles and latticework. “Young Woman Reading,” which recently sold for more than $7 million, was painted by Schliemann's nemesis, the artist-cum-bureaucrat Osman Hamdi, who prevented the daring German from smuggling even more antiquities from Ottoman territory.

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