Il­licit an­tiq­ui­ties trade con­tin­ues to thrive in Greece

Short-staffed ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites are easy tar­gets

Kathimerini English - - F Ocus - BY IOTA SYKKA

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 midApril 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 ex­cava- tions 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 po- lice 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.

in an­cient Greek trea­sures, the coun­try’s ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal her­itage has also been dealt a heavy blow. In some cases, stolen items are even­tu­ally repa­tri­ated through court or­ders, out-of-court pro­ce­dures or by vol­un­tary sur­ren­der by for­eign na­tion­als.

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