Police in Greece have announced the arrest of 26 individuals in connection with an antiquities looting network that had been operating for 10 years. The announcement showed the recovery of more than 2,000 objects, including coins, jewelry, and other objects. Two individuals were arrested last Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border with an astounding 1,000 coins and small portable objects hidden in the bumper of their car.
Police also confiscated metal detectors, guns, currency, and materials used to counterfeit currency.
The arrests on Sunday were the culmination of a 14-month investigation which may have involved as many as 50 people.
Nick Romeo reports for National Geographic that the economic downturn in Greece may be leading to a spike in looting of ancient sites. Apparently there has been an increase in the applications for permits to use metal detectors:
Before the crisis, many looters were members of criminal networks that also trafficked in guns and narcotics. Now it appears that regular people with access to tools for digging are unearthing pieces of Greece’s past and selling them for quick cash.
This surge comes at a time when agencies charged with protecting the country’s antiquities are underfunded and understaffed because of government budget cuts.
“We need more staff, more people,” said Evgenios Monovasios, a lieutenant in the Security Police Division of Attica. He estimated that in all of Greece there are roughly 60 employees who work exclusively to prevent and disrupt looting. While cooperation with local police departments across Greece expands this capacity, it’s difficult to monitor more than a fraction of the country’s vast and varied landscape, which ranges from the mountainous north to hundreds of islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas.
“It would take an army to catch everything,” said Elena Korka, the Director General of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage. “It’s impossible not to find antiquities in Greece; they are literally everywhere.”
The increase in looting in Greece can be connected to the economic stagnation there, and also the limited resources the heritage officials have to combat this destruction. How much both of these factors contribute to looting is debatable. What is not debatable is the appetite of the antiquities trade for ancient works of art without documented histories continues to lead to the loss of context and damages Greece’s (and our) heritage.
For the first time since the sculptures were removed from the Parthenon under the orders of Lord Elgin some 200 years ago, the British Museum has announced it is loaning a Parthenon sculpture. Specifically the Ilissos statue to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This very short loan, which will last only until January 18th has caused a great deal of outrage and criticism amongst those who think the sculptures should be ultimately reunited in Athens.
Greeks in particularly have been angered, with the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras calling the loan a provocation: “The Parthenon and its sculptures were pillaged. We greeks identify with our history and culture. They cannot be torn apart, loaned, and ceded.”
And there is I think part of the problem for the Greeks. They have made compromise exceedingly difficult. I have argued before that justice requires the sculptures be reunited in Athens. But ownership and property law has limits that cannot resolve this dispute. So much time has passed between Elgin’s actions, and the actions of Ottoman officials, that definitively litigating those actions is difficult. Rather that criticizing this loan, perhaps Greeks, and those who think the sculptures belong in Athens should see this as a loosening of the British Museums’s grips on these sculptures, and may be a precedent upon which future loans could ultimately achieve the return of these objects to Athens, if not permanently, then at least on a temporary basis.
The Getty has announced the return of a 12th-century Byzantine illuminated New Testament. Details are scarce in the piece, other than a record in 1960 from the Monastary indicated the Manuscript was missing. The object was acquired in 1983 as part of a “large, well-documented” collection.
From the Getty’s release:
The manuscript was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1983 as part of a large, well-documented collection. Recent research on the object by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, which was conducted in close collaboration with the Getty, suggested that the New Testament had not been legally transferred from the Monastery of Dionysiou. This was confirmed by a recently obtained 1960 monastery record indicating that the book had been illegally removed. The report of its disappearance had never been made public, nor had information about the theft been made available to the Getty, to law enforcement, or to any databases of stolen art.
The Getty is right to point out in the release that this is a voluntary return which came about as a result of the agreements entered into by the Museum as a result of other returns of illicit material. But one wonders about this other collection, if there are other objects in that collection which may be suspect, and how exactly the facts surrounding this return came to light.
Last week a number of folks drew my attention to the news that in Greece two men have been sentenced to life in prison for dealing in antiquities. The objects they looted and handled were worth an estimated €12 million. Two more men were jailed for 20 and 16 years. Based on the very brief AP report, it seems the men were digging near Thessaloniki close to an ancient cemetery.
I have seen a few remark that these very stiff sentences should be applauded and even are a sign that the Greek government takes archaeological looting seriously. I don’t know the specifics of this case, and it is not clear if these four sentences will be appealed and what kinds of parole options the violators will have. So we are dealing with a number of unknowns. And as a result I’d like to make a humble plea for a little sobriety when sentences of this nature are handed down. Too many archaeologists and other advocates hop up and down and either rejoice at these strong sentences—or criticize probation and fines which are at the other end of this spectrum. I think having a vigorous debate about what role prosecutions, and custodial sentences may play in reducing looting is a welcome development, but one should not make the mistake of jumping into sentencing policy without at least some cursory introduction very complicated field.
The deterrent power of criminal sanctions is very much an open question about even the ‘big’ crimes the justice system is supposed to prevent, things like murder and armed robbery. In the United States and in many other nations the criminal justice system is an imperfect mechanism which too often is asked to accomplish things it cannot. To expect this flawed institution to come riding in and solve the problems of heritage management, looting, and theft is terribly unrealistic. As many have pointed out, there is no magic bullet for heritage crime. Police and prosecutors have a role to play, but the stakeholders need to step up as well. Nations of origin, auction houses, buyers, and museums should not expect a flawed institution to fix what they are unable or unwilling to fix themselves.
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In February of this year armed men stole 80 small objects from a museum in Olympia dedicated to the Olympic games. They were armed, were able to overcome a lone security guard, and smashed the display cabinets and stole close to 80 small objects. At the time there was speculation by the Mayor of Olympia and others that Greek austerity measures had led to diminished security, making the theft easier to execute. After an undercover operation with an officer posing as a buyer, all of the objects have been recovered, most of them buried in a field only 3 km from the museum.
Given such a high-profile theft, in an olympic year, it is safe to assume that Greek authorities made recovering these stolen objects a high priority. A task which at the time was seemingly more difficult as there was speculation that these small, portable objects would have been easily shipped abroad or smuggled across the Adriatic to organized criminal networks in the Balkans. But it seems the objects did not make it far away from Olympia.
On Sunday authorities in Greece announced three Greek men were arrested in the city of Patra after an undercover officer posing as a potential buyer was offered one of the highlights of the theft, a Bronze Age gold ring. The remaining objects were found in a field near Olympia, where they had been buried inside a sack. So congratulations are in order for Greek law enforcement. And given the context of the theft, it is noteworthy that the Greek Public Order MInister Nikos Dendias told reporters on Sunday that “Despite the difficult economic situation we are not being lax on security issues, especially over our cultural heritage.”
Here is some video of the press conference and the recovered objects from Al Jazeera:
Earlier in June two men were arrested for allegedly smuggling an ancient gold wreath and armband out of the country:
The suspects were stopped by highway police near the village of Asprovalta, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Thessaloniki late Thursday. Officers, who were working on a tip that the house painter might be trafficking in antiquities, found the 4th century B.C. artifacts in a shoebox under the passenger seat. The wreath was a rare and valuable find, said Nikos Dimitriadis, head of the Thessaloniki police antiquities theft section. “It is a product of an illegal excavation from a Macedonian grave, according to archaeologists (who examined it),” he said.
The Olympia museum in Greece, site of an armed theft
Randy Kennedy has a report on the effect Greek austerity may be having on cultural heritage management in Greece. He cites the forced retirement of some senior Greek archaeologists, difficulty for early career archaeologists secure employment, the closure of some sites, and other difficulties. He reports on an ad produced by the Association of Greek Archaeologists:
The ad, produced by the Association of Greek Archaeologists, is most immediately a reminder of an armed robbery of dozens of artifacts from a museum in Olympia in February, amid persistent security shortcomings at museums across the country. But the campaign’s central message — “Monuments have no voice. They must have yours” — is a much broader attack on deep cultural budget cuts being made as part of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European economic establishment, measures that have led in recent weeks to an electoral crisis, a caretaker government and the specter of Greece’s departure from the euro zone. Effects of the cultural cuts are already being felt by the public, as museum galleries and sometimes whole museums suffer from sporadic closings.
Despite the persistent claims that austerity played a role in that Olympia Museum theft, there has been no evidence of this, other than the circumstantial connection between Greek austerity and budget cuts and the armed theft early in the morning itself. We may be critical of the Greeks—but in times of economic hardship difficult choices must be made. And Greece is certainly not the only nation making those choices. Consider the Met’s recent decision to quietly deaccession some old masters, the Getty’s recent funding cutbacks, or even the Corcoran’s potential sale of its building in Washington D.C. Difficult choices for all of these cultural institutions have to be made.
Kennedy’s piece does a fine job relating the perspectives of the Greek archaeologists affected. But is austerity a cause of the looting and theft? Or rather is it the thieves and looters who commit these crimes, and austerity provides them with a slightly more vulnerable target.
We should perhaps remember that other arts reporters for the New York Times have a habit of travelling to the mediterranean and pointing out flaws in the cultural resource management of the Greeks and Italians. Consider this piece from Michael Kimmelman in 2009 criticizing the Italians and the Villa Giulia after the repatriation of the Euphronios Krater.
Vanja Stojanovic, a terrific student at the University of Guelph put together this short interview after the ARTHattack! conference where I talk a bit about ARCA, the current situation in Greece and the art market:
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Last week was a bad week for antiquities protection, as thefts of antiquities from both Montreal and Olympia in Greece were revealed. It reminds us that antiquities are vulnerable in archaeology, but also when they are displayed in museums, just as works of art are.
Both instances are troubling examples of thieves overcoming museum security. But, to borrow a phrase from Prof. Merryman, no thinking person would use these thefts to argue that (1) Western museums should repatriate all their antiquities; or (2) Greece should sell its “surplus” antiquities to alleviate its culture funding difficulty. Both propositions are wrongheaded. They are a reason why cultural heritage policy has such difficulty getting off the ground, if the discourse can’t even acknowledge and admonish thieves as thieves.
With respect to the Olympia thefts, there is not much to report since last Friday’s theft. Channel 4 has a short video report showing the interior of the museum and images of the kinds of objects which were stolen. Dick Ellis, who formed the Art and Antiques Squad (and also lectures in ARCA’s Summer Program in Amelia) is quoted in the piece. He notes that
It has become an organised crime business the incentive is there to make money in Greece. . . . And they may well begin a life which sees them travel from the poorer hands of the lowly thieves who broke into the museum to reach the lucrative shores of London or New York, and in some cases, find themselves auctioned off for tens of millions of dollars. . . . I am sure the current economic situation is Greece is triggering people to become more active, . . . I would expect these objects are going to get moved. It’s a transitional country for other stolen goods, and they can go west or east.