Kennedy reports in NYT on austerity and Greek sites

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.

  1. Randy Kennedy, Archaeologists Say Greek Antiquities Threatened by Austerity, The New York Times, June 11, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/arts/design/archaeologists-say-greek-antiquities-threatened-by-austerity.html (last visited Jun 12, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on Antiquities Thefts

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.

The Channel 4 Video:

 

  1. Armed robbers loot ancient Greek museum – Channel 4 News, (2012), http://www.channel4.com/news/armed-robbers-loot-ancient-greek-museum (last visited Feb 20, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Armed Antiquities Theft from the Greek Museum in Olympia

The Museum in Olympia, before the theft

There has been another museum theft in Greece. At 7.30 local time this morning two masked men overpowered a security guard and stole between 60-70 objects. The Museum guard was tied and gagged. The BBC reports that “the robbers – one of whom had a gun – targeted the guard during a shift change, after having already knocked out the alarm.” Most of the stolen items were small bronze, gold, and clay statuettes, which will be very easy to hide, and unfortunately easy to sell. The thieves were dressed in military fatigues, and were well-armed. Police have described it as a “well-calculated” hit. But other reports indicate the thieves spoke only broken Greek, and that they weren’t familiar with the museum, asking where objects like a gold wreath were, even though the museum had none of those objects.

This theft comes after the theft from the National Gallery in Athens, and amid protests and fires which have destroyed some buildings. It also has caused the Greek Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos to resign. Connections will be drawn to Greek austerity, but whether it was funding cutbacks which have made this theft possible has not been established. There was a breakdown of security here, and it may be that thieves saw the thefts in Athens and were brazened. A culture ministry official told the AP that the thieves “seem to have operated more as if they were carrying out a holdup”.

Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards’ union put the cutbacks squarely at the feet of the bodies urging Greek cutbacks: “The cutbacks imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have hurt our cultural heritage, which is also the world’s heritage . . . There are no funds for new guard hirings, . . . There are 2,000 of us, and there should be 4,000, while many have been forced to take early retirement ahead of the new program of layoffs. We face terrible staff shortages. As a result, our monuments and sites don’t have optimum protection – even though guards are doing their very best to protect our heritage. ”

  1. Robbery at Ancient Olympia museum, BBC, February 17, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17071934 (last visited Feb 17, 2012).
  2. Nicholas Paphitis, Museum robbed at Greece’s Ancient Olympia, Google News, February 17, 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hueW4Ohi6iY0JYUbVnIZslcSHwoA?docId=f762a40068e9489dacd391175db3023e (last visited Feb 17, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Art and Antiquities Crime Up 30% in Greece

“We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn’t that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?” 


So says Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Greek Culture Ministry in response to questions that the Greeks aren’t paying enough to safeguard its sites. 


As protests continue to unfold in Greece, one report looks back at the theft of art from the Greek National Gallery in Athens. Anthee Carassava, reporting from Athens for the L.A. Times can’t help but to add a few glamorizing details to the theft. One of the thieves is a “virtuoso lock picker”. The thieves manipulated the security system and eluded the one guard on duty and stole works by Picasso (pictured here), Mondrian, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. I’m always skeptical of reporting in one nation’s papers pointing fingers at the ineptness of another nation’s efforts to protect its heritage. This problem plagues loads of international reporting in places like Italy and also Greece. And even if we take the United States or United Kingdom, theft and looting takes place, and there aren’t enough security guards to police remote sites and small institutions, which results in the theft of objects. Market safeguards are unreliable, and the law enforcement framework all over the world is still developing. So when funding pressures and unrest take hold, there can be dire consequences for cultural security.

The theme of the report here ties the theft in this case to the wider theme of Greek austerity, and unrest.

Greece’s economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security. At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection “is not in peril,” budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country’s biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis.

. . .

Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece’s cultural inheritance. Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget. Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece’s fine art and antiquities.

. . .

About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending. “What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?” asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece’s landmark monument. In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government’s Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks. With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves.

I’d be interested in hearing how this security compares with even the ‘model’ in the rest of Europe or North America. I also wonder if it might be time to prepare a ‘red list’ of objects from Greece that the art market should report and flag.

  1. Anthee Carassava, Art heist robs Greece of a sense of security – latimes.com, L.A. Times, February 11, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-greece-antiquities-20120212,0,3742515.story (last visited Feb 15, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Update on the Athens Theft

This Picasso was given to Greece in 1949, because the Greeks resisted the Nazis
The Ink Drawing by Caccia 

No recovery or arrests yet, but there has been a little new information to shed light on the recent theft from the Athens’ National Gallery. Police have said that one man entered the National Gallery through a small balcony door, after he had deliberately and repeatedly set off alarms the night before, which led to a guard disabling one of the alarms. There has been speculation that Greek austerity and budget cuts contributed to the theft, which seems overblown and a bit unfair to the Greeks. Whenever a security breach or theft takes place, the museum looks bad. And whether budget cuts and poorly paid security played a role remains to be seen.

Greek authorities have said that the theft was probably done to benefit a private collector. That seems at this point to be speculation, and is an attractive, if unlikely motive for the theft. There just aren’t that many real-life versions of Dr. Julius No.

But there is a good idea about what uses these stolen works may be put to:

A 20th Century landscape by Piet Mondrian

 Dick Ellis, director of Art Management Group in England, who set up the art theft division for Scotland Yard more than 20 years ago, said there’s a good chance they will be recovered and, if not, used as collateral to fund other criminal enterprises. “Government indemnity doesn’t cover theft. They [thieves] are looking for a ransom route that is not going to be forthcoming. We’ll have to see the caliber of the criminal,” he told SETimes. “It’s obviously an important Picasso, and it adds to its prominence that it was given by the artist himself,” said Ellis, who recovered in Serbia two Picassos stolen from a Swiss museum five years ago. 

When a theft like this takes place, security is front and center, and the Greeks are noting that security was robust at the museum:

Niki Katsantonis, a spokeswoman for the culture ministry, told SETimes that “The National Gallery, as well as all the other museums and archaeological sites, are equipped with modern security systems,” and pointed out that there have been thefts at many other museums around the world. She said the gallery will build a 46.5m-euro extension this year with EU funds, an addition that “won’t just improve the grounds, but it will fortify them as well”. Police spokesman Athanassios Kokkalakis said, “These were no amateurs. Their moves and operation together were very well calculated. With the publicity this heist has received, it’s unlikely these works will ever make their way into the black market.” 

 Robert Wittman noted, “You can’t judge art only on the dollar value, but what it means to civilisation. Your biggest agony is if it is destroyed or damaged. . . . About 99.99% of the time they are not stolen to order, but on the ability of the thieves to go in and get them. Most of the time they will take what’s easy to get and carry. . . . If they get caught in an armed robbery or something else, they can use it to negotiate.”

  1. Andy Dabilis, Greek investigators search for missing masterpiece, January 13, 2012, http://setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2012/01/13/feature-03 (last visited Jan 18, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting with Dynamite in Greece

This is the first I’ve head of using dynamite like this to loot sites: six looters in northern Greece have been arrested for using dynamite at an archaeological site to search for gold:

Authorities said Thursday that the four Greek and two Albanian men were arrested Wednesday after police discovered a 12-meter (40-foot) tunnel blasted into the side of a mountain near the city of Kavala, 700 kilometres (435 miles) north of Athens. 
The tunnel, with support columns and a construction track, was first started in 2008, according to local police, who said the suspects would be charged with illegal excavation, illegal use and possession of explosives, and violating archaeological protection laws. 
Archaeological services would not comment on whether they believed there was buried gold in the area.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com