Greece and the Illicit Antiquities Trade

An uncharacteristically-detailed item from Kathimerini:

The majority of visitors to state museums in Greece find the experience disappointing. There are various reasons for this, including closed halls due to staff shortages — a factor which also affects service — and impractical opening hours. However, what is a disappointing situation to many presents an ideal opportunity for a few.

The issue of museum security — particularly when it comes to safeguarding archaeological sites — is a constant headache for the Greek Ministry of Culture, which is struggling to cope with the limitations of being short-staffed.

However, it is clearly failing in its efforts: In mid-April antiquities were stolen from the ancient site of Eleusis, while prior to that there had been another theft in Arta at the beginning of the year.

Part of a tombstone column unearthed in Ancient Amvrakia and destined for the nearby Archaeological Museum of Arta never made it there. In the case of the antiquities stolen from Eleusis, the Greek Police’s Antiquities Theft Department managed to locate them with the ministry’s assistance and the ancient works will soon return to the archaeological site. However, the Archaeological Department is still concerned and so are regional antiquities ephorates.

The issue of illicit trading in antiquities has long been a major subject at conferences organized by archaeologists. Even more so considering that certain museums around the country have yet to record the treasures lying in their storerooms, while in some cases, artworks have not been restored at all.

Safeguarding and reclaiming cultural treasures from illicit trade was the subject of an interesting conference at the Acropolis Museum. The conference minutes, which were published recently, point to the fact that illicit trade is of major concern and goes beyond the field of antiquities. As it turns out, the country’s ecclesiastical heritage has been dealt a heavy blow as well.

The Culture Ministry records thefts by region and the results show that the areas which are most vulnerable are Epirus, Thessaly, the Peloponnese, Central Greece, the Ionian Islands and the Cyclades.

According to data compiled by V. Sakelliadis, there is intense activity in the aforementioned areas, resembling the spike in thefts during the 1970s and the 1980s.

Topping the stolen items list are religious icons (343), followed by woodcuts (36), sculptures (33), metal and ceramic objects (13) and sanctuary doors (11). Most thefts take place in the fall and winter time while ephorates don’t usually discover that items are missing until the weather improves.

Equally interesting is a chapter regarding the repatriation of stolen items, prepared by Smaragda Boutopoulou. Repatriation, it seems, has been on the rise since the 1940s. By the 1980s there had been 12 cases of repatriation, a figure which grew to 24 in the 90s and to 29 in the 2000-08 period. The conclusion? Out of 78 cases of repatriation, 15 were court-ordered, 37 were settled through out-of-court procedures, six were due to the Greek state purchasing the items and 21 were cases of voluntary surrender by foreign nationals.

According to Boutopoulou, a total of 1,938 ancient artifacts were repatriated from 1945 to 2008: 62 were repatriated during the 1960-80 period, 101 were returned to Greece in the 80s, the figure rose to 613 in the 90s, and over 1,161 repatriations have been recorded since 2000.

The conference’s findings are numerous and of great interest. They include a presentation of Greek antiquities around the world by specialist Alexandros Mantis, a talk by Eleni Banou on the case of antiquities repatriations from the Shelby White collection, and an analysis of the global ring of illicit antiquities trade and Greece’s position in it, by journalist Nikolaos Zirganos.

Rosa Proskynitopoulou, head of the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods Department at the Culture Ministry, admits that the ministry is highly active as far as trying to locate stolen antiquities goes, but not when it comes to museums.

“Above all, we have illicit excavations taking place in unguarded places. Incidents have increased in this area,” Proskynitopoulou told Kathimerini. As for repatriation, she said that the department is putting major emphasis on this issue, especially when it comes to negotiating the return of documented antiquities.

While Proskynitopoulou did not divulge more information, it is no secret that the department operates with only nine multitasking archaeologists, who also aid the police in their investigations.

In the past, announcements regarding the department being staffed by 47 experts (including a public prosecutor, legal advisers and police officers, among others) never made it beyond the stage of promises. Despite all its problems, however, the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods Department is currently on the right track regarding a number of cases of illicit antiquities trading in the United States and the UK.

… all of which is kind of interesting, insofar as over twenty years ago, when my wife and I were honeymooning in Greece, we went through so many museums where I pointed out to her how easy it would be to steal things if someone put in a modicum of effort. I seem especially to remember that the Zeus of Artemision (now in the National Archaeological Museum) or some similar bronze was actually in a display (protected from rain, but nothing else) outside a museum …

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